The memories are slowly returning. At Sirkus last night I wasn't halfway done with the beer I already didn't need to be drinking and I was given not one but two full ones. I'd finished the 0.3l and 0.5l glasses when it was time to get the hell out. They handed me a plastic cup with which I could magically transform my remaining beer into a beer-to-go-and-get-the-hell-out-of-here.
I tried to stand outside and talk a bit but wasn't able to manage it without a wall to hold me up. I saw it was past 5:00 a.m. and went home. The "walk" took about 10 minutes, and beer was sloshing out of the cup with almost every step. An actual cop car (a rare sight here) drove by and I remember the mildly amused look on the cops' faces. One third of the beer was still in the cup when I walked in and was still there this morning, something neither I nore my hangover needed to see.
No, really. WTF?
I wrote some notes about the previous night's goings-on as I slowly returned to a functional state. A quick look at the camera showed me I'd try to do an experiment with what appears to be Súr Grísasulta, sour-preserved pork jelly. I overlooked the next photo until the Feb 23 as I was finishing up yesterday's diary and looking for confirmation of times.
My current digital camera is a Minolta Dimage 3.1Mpix jobby which stores everything on an SD card and time-stamps all photos. This is how I know that I took the picture of the Grísasulta at 5:20a.m. and how I also know that I took my first (blurry) picture on the road to Akureyri at 2:45 p.m. What I don't know is how the hell I have a picture of a girl I don't know in my apartment sticking her tongue out at 5:23 a.m. I know I stumbled home alone, sloshing beer out of the cup with every step. I actually remember the beer sloshing and thinking realising how drunk I was. I remember the cop car. There was no girl.
Who is this girl and how did she get here?
Except there was a girl there at 5:23a.m. and I know this because her picture is in my camera and time stamped. I also know from later experience that it couldn't have been uploaded to the camera or SD card later as a joke without locking up the card and making further picture-taking impossible. My current theory is that having taken the picture of the Grísasulta, I passed out on the couch with the TV on and then some neighbour or miscreant came in the not-quite-closed door decided to have a bit of fun and make me wonder. There are problems with this theory: the door had a heavy spring and latch and was hard to keep from closing itself, and the photo wasn't snapped by the girl herself. Still, I know I went home alone and this theory is the closest shave this side of Occam unless someone can identify her.
At about 11:30, my phone rings. The guy from RAS cars is here. I'm decidedly not looking my best, but the white-rasta-looking guy didn't seem to mind. No car rental agency in Europe or North America would've handed me the keys. We did the paperwork real quick and he took off, leaving a Toyota something-or-other in my care. I was paying about €4/day extra for the car that was slightly larger than the smallest even though I was travelling alone. It was a wise decision.
I packed up the rest of my gear, sorted through scraps of paper, pamphlets and newspapers, then did an idiot check -- scouring through every room in an orderly manner -- to make sure I hadn't forgot anything. I took out the trash leaving the half a block of butter in the fridge. I did another idiot check and it's a good thing I did it a third time or I would've forgot my contact lenses and gloves.
Remember that alcohol tester from when I bought that shower head? Amazingly enough, so did I, and the yellow crystals didn't change colour, even after a second blow. According to the yellow crystals which didn't turn blue, I was legal to drive and felt almost awake enough to do it.
Instead I went to 22 with the computer to write a bit, have a double-espresso to wake up, a glass of soda water to rehydrate, and give my liver a bit more time to make sure I wouldn't learn more about the local justice system than was absolutely necessary. I went back to the apartment, loaded up the car and though I don't think I suffer from OCD, felt compelled to do one more idiot check. That netted me the black sweater I'd left under a sofa cushion.
Yeah, I'm a really good driver. Dad lets me drive.
With a crappy map in hand and a half-decent knowledge of which streets were one-way and in which direction, I plotted the easiest course to get me to the highway so I wouldn't have to look at the map as I was trying to get there. I found a pretty simple course, and scribbled down the first two syllables of each street's name to glance at just in case.
I was a little nervous at first; I hadn't driven for months and Icelanders drive -- fyrirgefðú --like shit. I'm used to defensive driving in the US and offensive driving in Germany (complete with their "the person on the right always has right-of-way mentality). Here in Iceland, lights, signs and road markings are treated like helpful suggestions which can safely be ignored if inconvenient.
Traveller's TipThe drive was difficult for various reasons, including the stunning views. Again, the pictures don't do it justice. Even in winter, the wasteland looks spectacular. The mountains tower majestically over the lava fields, scraping the clouds which dare to lie low. The low-lying light of the winter sun paints dazzling scenes with the cloud bottoms... or it blinds you, making driving that much more challenging.
Driving in Iceland, Part 1
There is one highway which circles the country. It's mostly paved. It's creatively called "Highway 1"; other numbers denote feeders and branches, such as the 41 between Reykjavík and Keflavík, the one Óli avoided a week ago to take me on the "scenic route" despite the snow. The road is two narrow lanes wide, one in each direction, undivided but usually marked. It has shoulders about 8cm/3in wide which round off sharply. There are usually steep drops into lava fields or off cliffs should your tire drift more than those few centimeters to the right. There are also sections which are gravel: slam the brakes before you reach the gravel! There may be a 50km/h posted speed limit but you're an idiot if you take it at over 30.
On the road to Akureyri
Not 30km outside the city, I approached a marked construction zone. There was a 4m pile of gravel in my way and a sign pointing me off to the right. Being accustomed to detours, I slowed to a reasonable 70 and three seconds later had to swallow hard in order to get my gonads back down where they belonged. I slammed the brakes, but not before I hit another "pothole". Pothole, abyss, whatever. I thanked Oðin for protecting the leaf springs as I continued down the pocked gravel and mud path, dodging one hole after another and pulling over whenever oncoming traffic appeared. When I give a Traveller's Tip, it's from first-hand experience. There was a second section of this about 10km further up the road. Within less than an hour, I was faced with some strange signage that I didn't stop and back up to re-read. I just followed the sign that had the one in the solid-lined box rather than the dotted-line, the latter which I'd already grokked meant an alternative route. I went into a tunnel that slowly curved, then went downhill for a while. Minutes passed and the tunnel finally turned back up. I'd had to hold my nose to clear my ears (I couldn't just "click" them as I can in a plane) at least three times. Then came another curve and finally daylight. It had taken about 10 minutes and the tunnel had a speed limit of 70km/h. Was it really 7km long? Nah...
At the other side there was a surprise waiting for me. At least I figured out the correct lane of the two. I pulled up to the booth and was asked for 1000kr, about 14 Eurobucks. I later found out it was that or a 50+km drive around the fjord. Since I was in a race against the Sun which I was destined to lose, I would've chosen this route anyway.
On the road to Akureyri
The light was slowly fading as I pressed on. I passed an interesting sign, and while I didn't stop to take a picture on the way, I figured out quickly what it meant. As you leave certain areas and go into mountainous roads, there are signs which list the current winds. I was headed into 70km/h (45mph) winds, and they were gusting up to 50% more than that. The drive quickly became a descent into hell.
On the road to Akureyri
Six years ago I was in New Zealand in a right-hand drive for the first time in many years. There was rain and we drove from the east through the treacherous route 7 pass to Greymouth (I forget he name of the pass) on the South Island, over narrow mountain roads with sheer drops and occasional wreckage you could see at the bottom from someone who wasn't as clever or lucky as you. This was worse, and most of the snow and ice was gone.
I made my way over the narrow road with its non-existent shoulders, hitting some residual snow and ice, and dealing with strong winds and gusts trying to blow me down the sheer drops. Now I know why Icelanders usually drive in the middle of the road, playing "chicken" with oncoming traffic until the last possible moment. The middle of the road is the furthest from the sides you can get.
There were some straightaways that went for miles across the barren wasteland of lava covered in either snow or yellowed sawgrass. While the maximum speed limit is 90km/h, some people were doing 120-150. I live in Germany and 120 isn't terribly fast.
But it got worse; it was getting darker. I was losing light and I wasn't even in Borðeyri. The roads are unlit, even at most interchanges. Instead they have highly reflective poles, and to make sure you don't lose sight of the shape of the road, they're spaced rather closely. This, I found out quickly, causes "highway hypnosis". I was feeling it quickly and it was hard to break, and harder still since I kept losing reception for all radio stations.
||Remember those old driving video games from the early '80s? The ones like Night Driver and Speed Demon? It was like those, but instead of three chances, you only got one life. There were further problems. The waning sunlight and hills and markers all created optical illusions which made it look at times like you were sliding off the side of the road. But all that time, the views were still incredible. Some of the mountains were dark, some were still white with snow, some of it layered at the ridges and plateaus.|
It was in total darkness that I reached the most treacherous section, an 8% grade about 40km outside of Akureyri which was covered with powdered snow and ice patches. And for some reason, there was quite a bit of oncoming traffic, half of which were large trucks. Thank fuck the weather was good. If I'd tried this last week I would've turned around in less than an hour into it and opted for a bus driven by some Viking used to driving in this crap.
If you're in Iceland and you just want to go to Akureyri for a day, taking a bus might be the better option. Fuel costs alone are about 4000kr each way, plus the car rental, plus the tunnel toll. The bus only costs a few thousand and leaves you free to think or read or gape. Taxis aren't cheap but there aren't many touristy places to go in Akureyri that you can't get to with a walk or hike. Of course, the bus won't stop for you to take photos of interesting stuff, something I did on the way back a couple days later..
Dude, where's my town?
No, really. Where is it?
I finally entered the city limits of Akureyri around 6:00p.m. and with another crappy tourist map, found the Got place I wanted to get to right away. I can definitely navigate. I called the woman who came out to where I was and told me the hotel was nearby and that I should follow her. I'd parked in front of the Guesthouse building, the kind where you share rooms and/or baths. We didn't drive 500m and I entered a nice building with a nice room. It wasn't an apartment, but it would be fine for a couple days.
Showers generally have two controls: water pressure on the left and temperature on right with safety stop. You really don't want to push the red button to make it hotter. There are often markings indicating the approximate temperature of the resulting water. Because it comes more or less straight out of the ground, hot water in Iceland is generally about 90°C (or 200° Fahrenweird), considerably higher than you're used to at home. Be careful!
Also, while some showers are enclosures, many just have curtains and on the floor, a triangular ridge about 1cm high and a few cm wide to keep most of the water in the general area of the drain. The air moving around as a result of the water flow blows the curtain out and negates the effectiveness of this set-up, but don't despair. There's usually a squeegee nearby for you to collect all the water and move it back in the general direction of the drain once you're clean.
Sinks are thankfully single-tap. There may be some quaint nostalgia with the British dual taps, but efficiency and practicality win the day here.
Toilets have squared seats. I expect Icelanders have rather square asses based on my toilet seat observations. All seats are squarish or triangular and markedly squared at the back. Strange. To flush, you usually pull a small, round stopper located on top of the tank.
A shave felt good. It's 8:30, I've watched some TV and it's time to go out amd see if it's true that "the most beautiful women in Iceland are in Akureyri", a claim made by the woman who failed in her assigned task last night. Now I just have to find out where the hell anything is. There was a cute girl at the video rental store a couple blocks away. I'll ask her.
I didn't ask cute girl at video store. I decided to explore instead. There's a lot more adventure in doing it yourself. I walked around and almost everything was closed. And by "everything" I mean "what little is here". That ain't much. Granted it's Sunday night and the town only has about 17,000 people, but you'd expect something. There were a couple restaurants open but I didn't feel like any of that, not that I was going to get anything better (in the end it was a nuked cheeseburger at the taxi stand / gas station.
Welcome to the... village
I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing...
In walking around I observed a ritual here. There are a lot of kiddies driving around over a few roads, over and over and over. Occasionally two going in the opposite direction will stop in the middle of the road and start talking. Well, their occupants talk, the cars just idle. About five minutes seems to be the maximum the cars backing up behind them will wait before hitting their horns. When they're not talking to each other through open windows, they're talking to each other on their cell phones. Cell phone cards and Cokes are a big hits at the gas station's counter.
Now I know that USian rural towns have similar adolescent rituals, but here they drove a very small path. Here they never switched directions to go off together. Here they never jumped in and out of each other's cars. Everyone stayed in his or her own car and plodded on.
I kept walking around many of these same streets and a few others in the vain attempt to find something of interest. A couple times I got honked at, I saw some red wagon for the third time with five very cute and most probably young-enough-to-do-hard-time girls. The one riding shotgun had leaned over to hit the horn and was checking me out as the driver kept on going. It happened again about 15 minutes later but they didn't stop. Just as well.
No, but rotten nonetheless.
I found a sports bar which was open and almost empty. I hate basketball but I love beer. I had one. Upstairs are some billiard tables and a snooker table. Snooker is 1600kr an hour. I grabbed a rack and half an hour later after finally clearing the first set, I quit. The bartender didn't mind. There were only two other people in there and after I gave him the rack back he did a Y-reading on the cash register.
After the burger, I took the Coke and went home. One always needs mixer. On the way I finally saw Kaffi Reykjavík, the place I'd walked more than a kilometer down Strandgata and back looking for. It's almost on the (round) square. I picked up the computer, went back to the coffee house and started getting some backstory written. Last night was pretty interesting, I wasn't taking notes, and some interesting things are still coming back to me. I had a long drive to remember stuff.
As far as the most beautiful women goes, there are some really beautiful teenagers driving around, but here in a place that's clearky more upscale, there are exactly three "Nice", one "Beautiful", and twelve "No Thank You"s. OTOH, there it's a pretty small statistical sample here and it is Sunday night. The guy at the sports bar said Fridays and Saturdays are pretty good. Shame I'm gonna miss it.
How do you like Iceland?
The guy at the table started talking to me as I was writing. "Where are you from?" And so it began again. I answered in Icelandic but he kept talking to me in English. They finally caught on that I might not be answering in English and they could almost understand me. "Do you speak Icelandic?" Nei, ég skila ekkert ("No, I don't understand a word."). Yes, I was trolling them, although non-Scoopers would call it "taking the piss".
And so it continued in a mix of Icelandic and English when I didn't understand. Then the woman at the table asked me if she could cut my hair. "No." "It's a shame because you're very handsome but the hair..."
She said some other stuff but I don't know if I need to write it. The other two girls at the table thought the exchange was a scream. They've had quite a bit of wine and beer already. I was invited over to the table. Within five minutes they started the Guess My Age game. I suck at this game, but they were worse in guessing mine than I was in guessing theirs. The mother kept asking if she could cut my hair.
They told me a few things, like that the snow last week was 2m (6ft.) high. The weather's been really weird and thanks to temps that went up to 10°C yesterday, there were only the slightest hints to be seen that it had snowed here at all. The idle chat lasted until the girl behind the bar asked us directly if we were ready to leave.
Saying goodbye on the way out, the last thing I heard was a slightly rough-voiced "I want to cut your hair!"
I went home to drop off the computer, then went out once more. The streets were empty, the kids all home. I went back to the hotel, made some Fimmkrisp (cracker bread) and cheese with Lifrarkæfa (a sort of liverwurst) sandwiches and poured myself a stiff drink. I listened to the TV as I accessed the "very low reception" wireless network and wrote some more. It took a few more 50-50 drinks and the annoyance at continually losing wireless reception that finally convinced me to get undressed and, for the first time in about a week, actually under the covers. By that time it was too late for TV and I was in no mood for kiddie TV. Despite the attraction, I popped an episode of Prime Suspect and fell asleep during a scene Helen Mirrin wasn't in.
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