Humble Contributions to the Peoples' History

Iceland: Land of Frost and Fire

Trip Trailer . . . 

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
–Robert Frost

Perhaps Iceland is the metaphor in Frost’s poem awakened to reality.

Iceland rests on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American Plates are drifting away from each other, and is responsible for volcanic activity, hot springs and geysers. Iceland is one of the world’s most active volcanic areas. In 2010, the volcano, Eyjafjallajökull (totally clueless on the pronunciation) erupted, grounding airplanes in Europe for days. I’m not the only who couldn’t pronounce the volcano name. The US military used to refer to it as E15 (E followed by the 15 letters). The island is just south of the Arctic Circle so during the winter months, snow covers the land, although the Gulf Stream moderates the temperature. The weather has a reputation for being notoriously variable.

Perhaps the metaphor in the poem extends from Iceland to the rest of the world. Whether those who have a cold heart and would place their own selfish motives ahead of the greater good for all people who inhabit our vulnerable planet–in danger of warming to such an extent that all of our ice would melt. Astronaut Scott Kelly, speaking from the International Space Station, remarked that our atmosphere “looks very, very fragile” and “like something that we need to take care of.” Unless we counter those who have consciously frozen the dialogue on global warming, it won’t matter if it is fire or ice that end our days.

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Land of Magical Light and Geologic Wonders and . . .

According to NASA, the earth is in the peak year of the 11-year cycle for the Northern Lights or aurora, which comes from Latin meaning goddess of dawn, and borealis meaning north. I might not get to see these dancing lights eleven years from now, so carpe diem!

I signed up for a tour with Global Expeditions Club; the trip included swimming in a geothermal pool, walking on glaciers, stopping by the waterfall of Gullfoss, watching geysers spouting their steam, and visiting a volcanic national park.

Politically Inspiring!

In these times when our presidential candidates spew talk of cruel austerity measures, racial hatred and stigmatizing remarks, it is refreshing to consider that a nation, in this case Iceland, can thrive and flourish with deep commitments and respect of their fellow citizens.

Sign on a bar window in Reykjavik. Some of our politicians would not pass muster.

Sign on Lebowski Bar window in Reykjavik. Some of our politicians would not pass muster. Bar named for the movie, The Big Lebowski (1997), now a cult favorite.

  • The Pirate Party, an international movement for Internet and data freedom, is now the biggest political party.
  • Iceland recovered from the 2008 financial crisis through progressive and sound economic policies, best explained in this article comparing Ireland and Iceland‘s responses to the crisis.
  • Vigdis Finnbogadottir, Europe’s first female president, who promoted environmental justice and education for women.
  • Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, first female Prime Minister and the world’s first openly lesbian head of government.
  • One of the world’s most sustainable countries.
  • No tipping because all restaurant workers are paid a fair wage. When I asked the waitress about the tip, she said, “No need to tip as we’re paid in wages.” So I asked, you’re paid a living wage? Yes, it’s not perfect but its fair, it’s not like the U.S.”

Dangers and Warnings Notice

I guess one should never laugh at “dangers and warnings” postings but at some level the concerns in Iceland seemed comical, especially as compared to my pre-vacation worries on my last adventure on the Star Clipper. I almost cancelled that trip, as it was scheduled just weeks after the Isis terrorist attack in the capital of Tunisia. The museum where tourists were killed was one of our planned visits.

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Wayward bear outside a gift shop?

The number one warning on the list: expensive! Meals are pricey, but I’m happy to grab something from the grocery store. Well, I can hardly get worried about high prices as compared with terror attacks. Also on the danger list: the occasional wayward polar bear. Supposedly, one came ashore someplace in 2011. Another animal concern: the Arctic tern, which can turn on you if you bother their nests. I’ll be there in winter, no problem there. And while on the animal worry list, seems that sheep jump on the highway if they get spooked. Don’t spook the sheep!

Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Incarceration, you ask? The total prison population is about 150. What is the reason for such good behavior on the part of their citizenry: equality! Class tension is nonexistent because 97% of Icelanders see themselves somewhere in the middle class. They have a Nortic-model welfare system. Workers and their employers negotiate wages and labor market policy while the government mediates the process. Gun owners must take a written test and submit to a medical examination. Police do not tote guns, although they do carry cameras, mostly for taking pictures of their pet dogs, cats and parrots.

Sounds idyllic, right? Anyone I’ve spoken to about Iceland has only praise for the island. If I can avoid leaping sheep, it will be a great trip! Oh, let’s hope that volcano remains dormant.

Celtic Cousins

In connecting with my Celtic roots on past trips, I’ve visited Ireland, Scotland and Northern Spain. According to Wikipedia, most Icelanders are descendants of Germanic and Celtic people. The Celts have an affinity with magical “little people” and Icelanders, too, share a belief in elves— called huldufólk, or hidden folk, as they’re referred to on the island. The culture demands that roads and other construction works consider whether the hidden folk might be disturbed by such projects. The Elf School informs us that there are over a dozen kind of elves . . . you’ve got your gnomes and trolls, of course, and don’t forget the fairies. Some families build little wooden alfhol (elf houses) in their gardens. Well, that’s just crazy–who would make little houses for their tiny garden friends?

The folklore of the hidden folk weaves through the country’s cultural fabric. I’m beginning to feel at home before I even arrive. I fully expect a close encounter of the third kind, based on my experience in Ireland on Croagh Patrick.

Leaving Philly
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This morning I woke up to a dusting of snow over the landscape and temperature at about 31 degrees. The weather in Iceland is almost the same with snow showers expected.

Looks like heavy cloud cover will prevail over the next week so I’m thinking that we may not see the Northern Lights; I’ll remain optimistic.

During the 25-minute flight to JFK Airport from Philly, I studied the New Jersey landscape passing below. Snow formed intricate patterns in the neighborhoods, filling in spaces where the snow hadn’t melted yet.

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At JFK I boarded the 757 for the night flight. From takeoff, New York appeared as a tapestry of yellow light as the plane flew over the city. Highways weaved glowing ribbons through the dark earth. While other passengers were viewing movies and listening to music, I studied the flight tracker, watching the jet’s path over the northeast states, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean. Flight stats: 2,500 miles to Reykjavik, 4.5 hours; 33,0000 feet, -66 degrees outside temperature, 650 mph, recorded over Nova Scotia. The orange quarter moon hung majestically at the horizon just above the fluffy clouds.

When they announced that WiFi had become available on our flight, they failed to mention that was an extra charge, and a steep one at that: $20 for an hour! I returned to my tracker watch.

Saturday, March 5, Landing at Keflavik International Airport

The airport is modern and clean with a distinctly Scandinavian look. Followed the signs for “arrivals” without having any idea where I was going. Down hallways, up and down steps around shops and services, I made my way to the Fly Bus for the 50-minute ride to the hotel. The road out of the airport was flat and straight, surrounded by lava fields of black rock jutting up from the land. Rain sprinkled on the windshield of the bus, but a golden light breaking through the clouds hovered over the mountains. I could see the scenery was going to be spectacular.

Settling in at the 22 Hill Hotel

By luck, my room was ready at the early hour of 9am. The room furnishing have clean lines, light hardwood floors, big screen tv and standard amenities. The breakfast bar was still open, and I was most grateful. Meal served on the plane: small salad and one drink so I was very hungry and thirsty.

Searching for the Elusive iPhone Charging Cable

I checked my iPhone, realizing that it had never charged. I made some inquiries at the hotel desk for help, the receptionist directing me to the Apple Store, just a quarter-mile away. The clerk there said my cord was bad but they were all out. He directed me to two other places down the road another half mile. First place I checked was all out of the cords, too, so on to the next store. Reading maps is a challenge. Street names are long and complicated and do not follow any English clues to construction. Doesn’t matter, looking at Icelandic words, either left to right or right to left, looks like a jumble of letters and symbols. At the third store, the clerk reported they were out of cables. I pleaded for him to check again, and he returned with the last one! Now, if only I could find my way back to the hotel.

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IMG_3031I wondered about the wisdom of wandering around just to find a cable, but I could still enjoy the snow-covered mountains and felt like I had successfully completed a mission.

When I walked out of the store, a raven on a light pole cawed loudly to me. A good omen, I thought, as I have an affinity with the ravens.

Venture into Downtown Reykjavik; Blog Now X-Rated?

IMG_3049Although I was tired from the previous walk, I headed downtown. Just past the bus station, I came across the famous Icelandic Phallological Museum, I believe the only one in the world. I looked through the window at the display of stuffed animals . . . no further commentary needed.

Boutiques and gifts shops lined the main street, most were closed in the evening but a few of the souvenir stores were open, selling t-shirts, woolens and ceramic elves. Interesting that a national infatuation with the “little people” can turn into a marketing bonanza.

Exploring Reykjavik, Sunday, March 6

Woke up to a snowy morning. After breakfast at the hotel, I prepared myself for a wintry walk back into town. Last night the cold penetrated my layers so today I put on everything I had in my suitcase: tights, long johns, two paris of socks and gloves, scarf, snow pants and hiking boots. Sidewalks were slushy so water had soaked into my sneakers.

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BTW, all those layers worked to keep out the cold!

I signed up for City Walk Reykjavik, a pay-what-you-want, guided tour by local historian, Eric. About twenty participants gathered at the park in front of the Parliament Building, and I just happened to meet folks from Philadelphia. Small world, huh?

In the video, Eric talks about the financial crisis and the “pot and pan protest,” where thousands turned up on the square to let their representatives know they were handling the situation badly.

While some sidewalks are snow-covered, other areas are completely free of ice because pipes carry hot water under the ground. In the city, that made walking around easy. I came to the conclusion that it would be an impossible task to constantly shovel sidewalks, as it snows all the time.

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Walk-participant demonstrates Eric’s invention: glove that keeps hand warm while carrying a can of beer around. Human ingenuity!

IMG_3076In the photograph above, we were standing just below the statue of Ingolfr Arnatson, tradition suggesting that he and his wife were the founding settlers of Iceland. Considered a hero by many, Eric pointed out the irony that Arnatson in his adventures led a bloody life, including mistreating slaves. Still, he is rewarded with a statue, as are so many of our “heroes.”

One of our last stops on the tour was Tjornin Pond, where ducks, swans and geese splashed around the unfrozen edges, ice melting with the help from geothermal heating. Colorful houses surrounded the perimeter. I could have lingered at the pond for a long while watching the children feed the birds.

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More Reykjavik wildlife . . . well, a Forest Thrust and a cat guarding a door. I think he might be a relative of that “Grumpy Cat” on the Internet.

From the Pond, I boarded the On-Off Bus, getting off at Hallgrimskirkja, a landmark in Reykjavik and the city’s largest church. I purchased a ticket for the elevator ride to the top of tower; Icelanders seem to be a trusting people because no one collected the ticket. The views from the top:

And from the door at the entrance to the church:

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The next stop was Perlman, a building that stores the city’s hot water. I hadn’t planned on stopping at a hot water plant, but when I saw the glass dome at the top with visitors walking around the perimeter, it was time to get off the bus. You couldn’t take a bad photograph from that top platform.

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The photographs taken within an hour of each other show how quickly the weather can change.

The bus returned to the harbor area, stopping at the sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason, entitled Solfarid–The Sun Voyager, an iconic landmark in the city.

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IMG_3178I walked back along the sidewalk that followed the seawall to Hofdi House. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit meeting at this site. Although these talks ended without resolution, they did make progress toward the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Coincidently, Reagan’s wife, Nancy, passed away today.

Our tour group was meeting soon, so I hurried back to the hotel. Suzanne, our guide, presented the itinerary and afterward our group had dinner together at the hotel. Table conversation was lively, but I was exhausted from all the walking and very hungry. Dinner seemed to take forever to be served so I was mostly thinking about food!

Some members of our group went out on a boat in search of the Northern Lights and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the green lights in the sky.

Blue Lagoon Hot Springs, Monday, March 7

I've seen them in gift shops. Does that count?

I’ve seen them in gift shops. Does that count?

According to the Blue Lagoon’s web page, the spa is one of the 25 wonders of the world! The bus ride out to the pool was a wonder in itself: the white mountains, the jagged rocks of the lava fields and the misty weather created an otherworldly feel. We passed signs that zipped by too fast to read but something about elves. According to Eric, elves do get their way. In construction projects, rocks become impossible to move, breaking all equipment and human initiative. They have to bring in an elf whisperer to negotiate with the “little people” to get the work done. Eric also said that belief in elves depends on whether you have seen them: those who have seen them, believe in them.

IMG_3182The Blue Lagoon organization had an interesting technological advance for getting people in and out. Each visitor is given a wristband, which acts like a key in the changing room. Lockers open and close by passing the wristband over a blue light. You could also charge meals and drinks on the device.

Instructions guided us to take showers before entering the pool, which meant that when I hit that icy cold air on the outside, that was a shock! As the wind pelted me with sleet, I quickly dumped my towel and ran to the entrance ramp. As the hot water embraced my shivery body, I melted into the milky blue pool. Perhaps that stark contrast between the air and water temperature heightened the experience.

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I swam to all corners of the pool, enjoying the subtle variations in the water temperatures and marveling at the lava embankments that surrounded us. I tended to float around the hot spots, which felt so soothing. The wind continued to deliver a steady stream of sleet on my face, but that actually felt refreshing. My fellow group members directed me to the mud supplies, which we rubbed over our faces.

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Lifeguards have to dress for the cold!

Later, when I asked one of my fellow travelers to rate the experience 1-10, she said 11!

I agree. I had a backache for two days, I think because of sleeping in a cramped position on the plane. When I came out of the pool, all aches and pains were gone! Yes, I will count the Blue Lagoon as one of the wonders of the world.

 

IMG_3199Rainbow Connection? When we gathered for our evening activities, a rainbow arched across the sky in front of our hotel. The receptionist said that rainbows were significant in Norse mythology, serving as a bridge between the earth and with the home of the Norse gods. 

The tour companies cancelled all the Northern Light hunts for the evening so we were on our own to find entertainment. Some of our group went to dinner and others explored the neighborhood bars.

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Dillon Whiskey Bar

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American Bar.  Thanks, Courtney, for taking the picture! But what’s with that scary face?

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We also stopped at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand, made famous by a visit by President Bill Clinton when he stayed in Reykjavik in 2004 for a Unicef conference. Bill always liked the fast food.

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Eating hot dogs in the rain.

South Iceland and Northern Lights Hunt, Tuesday, March 8

Today our excursion included the south coast of Iceland to walk on ancient glaciers, visit waterfalls and hunt for the elusive Northern Lights.

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Global Expeditions Club: Iceland

Our first stop was the 180-foot high Seljalandsfoss waterfall, one of the beautiful I’ve ever seen, even with rainbow.

IMG_3273The waterfall was just a short walk from the parking lot. Our next adventure required more effort! We had to gear up with crampons (boot attachments with ice cleat spikes), harness and ice ax. The harness was required just in case we’d fall into a crevice, our guides would have a place to attach a rope to pull us out. Two of our hikers had minor incidents with falling into holes, include winding up waist deep in the snow.

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Suzanne, our intrepid tour guide, (right) stands suited up ready to go.

Our hike took place on Solheimajokull glacier, part of Myrdalsjokull, Iceland‘s fourth largest glacier that covers the volcano Katla. I talked with one of the guides about my glacier experience in New Zealand, and he said they often train at the Franz Josef Glacier.

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We trudged through the slushy snow to the base of the glacier. The scenery was mesmerizing as the view changed from one minute to next. Blue sky filled with white billowy clouds would turn white and gray and pelt us with tiny hail balls. The changing light created shadows on the rugged rock formations, patches of snow highlighting the cracks. Clouds made the sun into a soft luminous ball.

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Coming down the ridge, the left side of the narrow trail went down into a crevice, which I was sure there no escape if I slipped. The crampons did their job holding tight to the ice as we maneuvered down the slope while those icy hail stones bounced over the trail.

Guides pointed out measurements on the glacier’s retreat due to global warming. Seeing the empty bed where the glacier once occupied left a visual legacy of our ignoring the implications of climate change.

Our next stop was the black sand beaches, basalt columns and the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar. We were warned not to go into the water as folks have been swept out to sea. The waves furiously crashed against the cliff; fighting the current would be impossible.

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IMG_3348At nightfall we arrived at Skogafoss Waterfall, one of the most popular sites in Iceland. Our guide told us to stick to the trail as the spray from the falls iced up the area. It was so dark, however, that the river off to the side just looked like a black path to me. Fortunately, they called me from the edge before I plunged into the water.

Our vans headed back toward Reykjavik as our guide kept a lookout for the Northern Lights. We stopped several times along back roads, and by midnight we only saw a few faint glimmers. Persistence paid off and were finally rewarded with seeing the green lights dance across the sky but too faint for my camera to capture. Deb, one of my fellow travelers, was kind enough to let me use one of her photographs. The night sky was clear, and without any light pollution, stars sparkled through the darkness.

Deb Carlson, Iceland

Photo Credit: Deb Carlson

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Mural depicting Aurora Borealis in a back alley of Reykjavik.

Golden Circle, Wednesday, March 9

From Reykjavik, we ventured northwest into Iceland’s interior. Today was our first day of bright sunshine, with no clouds or mist blocking the mountains, the views were breathtaking. On the vast stretches of smooth snow, ice crystals sparkled in the sunlight.

Our bus followed the road through Thingvellir National Park, UNESCO World Heritage site. The tectonic plate of Eurasia and of North America, which extends all the way to San Francisco, collide causing earth quakes, volcanos and hot springs.

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The founding of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth and the Alþingi assembly is located in the park.

IMG_3406At Gullfoss Waterfall, a sheet of ice covered the parking lot. The wooden sidewalk proved equally difficult to navigate. I saw people take nasty falls. I slipped twice, as the black ice was difficult to see. I clung to the banister as I stepped down to the falls. Very slowly and carefully, I moved to the view-point. This powerful waterfall did not disappoint as the water thundered down through the canyon.  A glacier, the second largest in Iceland, feeds the Hvita Rivera.

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We stopped at the Great Geyser hot spring and accompanying mud pools and steam vents. Strokkur hot spring blasts skyward about every 4 to 8 minutes throwing the heated water into the air. Every time the geyser erupted, the crowd would “ahhhhh.”

The bus passed the lakes, Laugarvatn and Apavatn, and left us off at Skálholt Church, the place of religious and political power for 800 years. Now the town serves as a information and education center. Next to the church stood a replica of early construction.

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IMG_3475Heading toward Reykjavik, the tour stopped at the Icelandic Horse Park, Fákasel. The show was just about to start, so we quickly bought our tickets and headed into the arena, but not before taking our photos of these sociable ponies. The horses played with each other, including giving “kisses” to their companion pony.

Vikings brought these horses to the island in the 9th or 10th century and are the world’s purest breed. Icelanders passed laws forbidding the import of other varieties of horses. These are hardy animals, once used for transport, and can stay outside for the entire winter.

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After the show, we met the ponies and their riders up close. I think we took more photographs here than in any other of our stops.

Reykjavik, Thursday, March 10

Most of our tour group headed back to their homes today, so after breakfast we said goodbye. I had another day and decided to spend time in town.

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On the tours, the raven became part of the discussion as this is an important bird in Iceland. A monogamous bird, the ravens fly together in pairs at this time of year as this is mating season.

The original settlers believed the raven to be a symbol of wisdom; the Christians, however, changed the narrative, suggesting that these birds were associated with death and magic. The Icelandic Red List of Birds categorizes the raven as a vulnerable species.

Harpa, the city’s new concert hall that opened in 2011, stands at the edge of the harbor, the snow-covered mountains framing the backdrop. One evening, I saw the glass panels across the front light up in different colors and returned to explore the interior. The steel framework supports rectangular glass panels of various colors. The building is a geometric marvel. I noticed my reflection in one of the ceiling tiles, an opportunity for a selfie.

From the Harpa I wandered through the harbor. Several large whale-watching boats anchored at the docks. Reykjavik has a thriving tourist industry and offers boat rides to see whales, puffins and the small island, Vioey, the location of the Imagine Peace Tower, the memorial to John Lennon. The memorial, a beacon of light that reaches skyward, is lit on several occasions during the year.

IMG_3522Rain poured all morning so after exploring the area, I began to look for coffee to warm up. On one of the back streets, I read a blackboard sign outside of a café, “homemade cakes,” which was my invitation to eat at Stofan. Shabby chic best describes the atmosphere inside, with solid plank tables, comfy sofas and a glass case filled with delicious looking cakes. I ordered the apple cake, which came with a dollop of whipped cream and accompanied by fresh-roasted coffee.

Many of the restaurants, bars and shops played American music from the 1960s to the present. While I was sipping coffee, “Dream a Little Dream,” by the Mama’s and the Papa’s played. I never realized how much I liked that song, but gazing out the window as I sat in this little café watching the large snow flakes float from the sky, did seem like a dream, and I wondered who might be dreaming of me?

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you –
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you.
But in your dreams, whatever they be,
Dream a little dream of me.

 

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When I left the café, the rain turned to snow and the streets and shops looked like scene out of a Christmas card. Time to do some souvenir hunting. I picked up woolens and chocolate, stopping at several different shops.

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One dress shop intrigued me because of their window display of vintage-style dresses. The full skirts make great choices for contra and swing dance. I immediately liked one of the dresses on display and asked the sales girl if there were others. She replied that the seamstresses had only made that one . . . turns out they sew the dresses right there on the premises! The dress fit perfectly and wasn’t that expensive for a small boutique.

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How often do you get to meet your seamstresses?

IMG_3207With my lovely dress and souvenirs in my backpack, time to walk back to the hotel. Tomorrow I have to wake up at 5am to catch the bus to the airport. Coincidently, as I passed this church, I’m reminded of my destination tomorrow.

I searched the Internet but could not find the link between the name of this church and the City of Brotherly Love. Anybody?

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Mural on Laugavegur Street.

Leaving Reykjavik, Friday, March 11 

In a week’s time I have come to love Iceland. The scenery is spectacular: the snow covered mountains,  the jagged lava fields, the blue waters of the surrounding harbors, and the ever-changing sky. On this day rain drenched the streets all morning, followed by sleet and then large snow flakes. The sun came out from behind the mist and within an hour hail fell from above. The vast stretches of snowy wilderness feels desolate, but the stillness offers comfort. It seems that humans would never be able to disturb these landscapes, well, except for global warming.

The unexpected–best describes this country. This small island, forged from volcanic eruptions that occur every four to five years, experiences earth quakes every day. The hot water that fuels home and industry spouts out of the earth reminding us that a cauldron of heated material swirls right under our feet. The sky can sparkle with diamond-like stars and floating lights of green and pink ripple through the night.

From the way the guides described their country, preserving nature is their highest priority. One of the guides said that believing in oneself and respecting nature is their religion. They have faith in their fellow humans. The only government building that has security is the US embassy, the homeless have a place to go and they don’t worry about petty theft. The rooms do not have safes, and I didn’t see a single warning about pickpockets after passports and wallets. They generally do not lock their doors. While I was here, I felt a increased degree of freedom because when you don’t have to worry about crime, you don’t have to be constantly vigilant. In the US, fear is heightened as everyone worries whether someone, like a welfare recipient, will “steal” their piece of the pie. The more we close the doors of compassion, the more society suffers, and the underclass grows fearful that they will have nothing. The cycle continues and grows worse, which is why we now have such bullies running for President.

My hope is that someday I might return to Iceland, perhaps in summertime when the fields are green and sun never sets.

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Thanks, dear readers, for stopping by the blog. Feel free to leave comments.

 

 

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