Saturday, April 4, 2015


May your flag forever fly high.
Hopefully you also get breaks in between,
it might to strenuous otherwise.

I was in Iceland in late February. It is an island located in the area that belongs to either the Atlantic Ocean or the Arctic. I can't say for sure and Google maps doesn't help much.

Iceland is not as far from North America or Europe as it appears in the map. For a country that needs to import almost everything apart from energy and fish,  the world being spherical works out to a pretty heavy discount on the transportation. It is also conveniently located in the path of the Gulf Stream which makes the weather a little less chilly than what you'd expect at that latitude, but very volatile.

The population adds up to about 300,000, comparable to the size of the typical joint family in Indian soaps. About 2/3rds of the lot are situated in Reykjavik and its suburbs on the west coast. The remaining 100,000 are located in a small number of towns or villages sprinkled about on the rest of the island. Since the recession, the value of their currency has dropped by about 50% which has boosted tourism and of late, the number of tourists visiting has been outstripping the native population. The more adventurous French constitute a majority of the Iceland's armed forces' clientele, routinely getting themselves stuck in snow or storms and needing rescuing by the two helicopter strong air fleet. The country seems better equipped for marine rescues with their coast guard having three boats.

Unless you're comfortable (or even enjoy, for that matter) driving in snow and would rather pay careful attention to the road than gape at the scenery rolling past you, you're better off joining tour groups instead of renting a car. I don't know if it's a universal observation since I haven't joined a tour group before, but I would recommend joining smaller groups and avoiding the larger companies. For a fun game, count the number of people who ask you to call them Siggy.


It's the only city for miles around, if not the entire country, and you probably want to set up base here. Look for a place called What's On on the main street, Laugavegur and ask them for recommendations on things to do. Accommodation in this area is the best choice if you want high accessibility and a wide choice of eating places and shopping and a flea market open on weekends.

This is also the area where the Saturday night pub crawl happens. Alcohol's expensive so most people prepare at home before they start which is why it starts at 1 am and continues well into the morning. We ran into someone who thought Endhiran is the best movies she had ever seen and recommended Andaz Apna Apna to her although I'm not sure how funny "Yeh Teja Teja kya hai?" is in English, or even Icelandic, subtitles.

Given the tiny population, somebody has also built an app which allows you to check, especially during those crucial hours, whether you and a person of interest might be related. This is powered by the help of a vast amounts of genomic data that has been collected, and old tax and birth records which are maintained. Contrary to expectations, usage isn't high on Saturday nights or early Sunday mornings. It's late Sunday mornings and afternoons when the app gets the most traffic. If that doesn't tell you, the people are quite relaxed. Apropos, there is even a place which is a copy of the diner from The Big Lebowski.

There's an interesting two hour city walk that takes you through some of the more interesting or important sights in this part of the Reykjavik. If you aren't visiting museums, I do recommend joining this just so you have a sense of where you're walking around and finding out the exact pronunciation of Eyjafjallajokull.

The Reykjavik logo or whatchamacallit
Apparently the first settler, who was later proved to not be the first settled,
dropped a couple of logs and let them float off. Then in an unethical
game of Fetch, he asked his slaves to go find the logs because that's where
he planned to found his capital. The logs were near what is now Reykjavik.
The name means smokey caves, stemming from all the geysers spewing steam.

"The Sun Voyager gives us a promise of a primeval land."
All I could think of though, was "Valhalla, I am comiiiiiiIIiiing."

There are more shops named after polar bears than there are polar bears.

If you aren't Scandinavian size, you don't
get into a car, you hoist yourself into it..

This is exactly how fat people sweat.

 Much better trained than their British counterparts.

"Iiiiii'm the maaaaan in the box!
Wooooon't yooouuuu coooome aaaand save me!"

Some folk regularly go sea swimming, whatever the weather or
temperature. The reward for the dip in the sea is the hot tub after. Olympic
sprint records are routinely broken during the run from the sea to the tub.

Oh and remember the part about the people being very relaxed?
That extends to the changing room as well.

"Three sets of footprints entering,
and none going out. That can
only mean one thing, Watson."
"What, Holmes?"
"This is the entrance and the
exit is somewhere else."
"That's it. I'm going to just ask
someone where the toilet is."
"You shouldn't have
eaten all that Mexican."
"The burritos were fine. It's
probably the Indian I had yesterday.
I lament a curry, my dear Holmes."

All the whale watching tours are over by the evening
and the harbour is pleasantly rid of the watchers.

The secret North Indians for Bestiality meetup.

You've read it, you've seen it, but have you
ever actually visited a snowy graveyard?
This is equivalent to a celebrity sighting, except it's a place and not a person.

The Hobbit location reject no. 48
Fire in the hole, anyone?
Is a sale at a bad taste record store a good thing or a bad thing?

Go back home, Athena. You're drunk.

This building houses the entire parliament of 60-odd people.

This is the residence of the prime minister. I don't see any security around so
you could ring the bell and run off and nobody would do a thing.
There's no crime there so it might even come in the newspaper.

Attempting the national population density record

A people who let forth a greeting instead of drawing
dickbutt or scrawling 'YOLO SWAG!!!' is a happy people.

"I'm so hungry, I could literally eat a horse."
"Would you like minke whale, and some sweet potato fries on the side?"

Late black bird, cousin of puffin(far left).
Late minke whale (center).
Regularly victimised creatures, rest of them.
They practice sustainable whale farming, and historically didn't really
have the luxury of sticking to only the acceptable - to - eat animals.

Much to the awe of the locals, Indians could do much better at
their tongue twisters than Americans and other Europeans.

This is a sheep's jawbone. This is a toy that children bounce
around after they are done with the meal. It seems slightly
gruesome but then again, these are descendants of vikings.

Dried fish are Iceland's largest exports.
This sort of array is where the drying happens and it stretches
on for  quite a bit to the side and to the back. Entire schools
of fish must be here like some sort of TCS campus hiring spree.

Reykjavik: Perlan

The cylinders around the hemisphere are hot water tanks. The hot water, being geothermally heated, smells of sulphur and provides an easy cover for unclean bathrooms if needed. It's one of the highest points in the city and at the top is a highly rated, and expensive rotating restaurant. However, there is a free viewing gallery.

Some shots from the viewing gallery are in the Views section at the end.

Reykjavik: Hallgrimskrikja

Hallgrimskirkja, a church of some sort, is the Eiffel Tower of Reykjavik. You can climb up to the top of the tower for some more stunning views. Having your hotel in the vicinity allows you the comfort of a landmark visible from afar. Apart from serving as the local Eiffel Tower, Hallgrimskirkja also houses an organ with 5000+ pipes.

It's a slightly busy street so it's hard to get a nice centre point shot.
The statue in front is the guy who supposedly discovered North America
before the Columbus and Vespucci lot.

Cleaning the pipes is an expensive affair and you're requested to donate some.

Reykjavik: Harpa

Harpa, the cultural centre built at great expense, is a very interesting looking building. Apparently, for a few years just after the recession, it was the only construction project funded by the government. Reykjavik doesn't offer much in the evenings apart from places where you can grab a bit and a drink with live music so keep an eye on their website because they have something or the other going on all the time.

It's shiny clean in the daytime but come the night
and it flows and shimmers like a bar dancer

It looks like a honeycomb from inside and might be useful for insulation.
I'm not a civil engineer and I shan't attempt using any more big words.

Reykjavik: The Icelandic Phallological Museum
This section might be NSFW depending on where you W at
If you're a prim and proper types, I suggest you skip this one

If you were wondering about the flag post at the top, you should have an 'aaaah' moment just about now. In another testimony to how relaxed the people are, Iceland is home to what is probably the only museum dedicated to phalli. It isn't pornographic. It's almost biological and natural history, in fact. They have specimens from a variety of species, mostly Icelandic and marine, usually obtained after the animals died after being stranded on a beach or some other tragedy. Human donations are also present as is a picture of Jonah Falcon.

Uhm... I kind of forgot to take notes so I've forgotten which species is which. The ones from our species should be easily identifiable, I trust. If you can't, you're too young to be reading this.

Catheters are for pussies.

One of the whales.

I think this was a sea lion.

Just to get some perspective, we are on the far right.

This would be my choice of a poster
for an uprising against feminazis.

Soon they will be setting unrealistic
body image standards for young phalli


Sperm whale, I think.

They do their bit for society.

The Golden Circle

We now head out of Reykjavik.

The Golden Circle is the prime tourist circuit in Iceland but, in my humble opinion, very undeserving of that honour. These are great sights, don't get me wrong, but they are quite tame and subdued. It takes about 6-8 hours to see them all. If you're short on time I'd recommend you skip it.

The Golden Circle consists of -

Thingvellir, a national park which is of historical, geological, and political importance. You can see the American and European tectonic plates meet here although, deserving of the political history of the place, they aren't really meeting so much as they are pulling apart.

The plates meet somewhere in that direction.
There is a rift in between and you can go scuba diving into it.
If you're claustrophobic or can't fit, you can try again a few centuries later.

A bunch of geysers at the Geysir geothermal area, Strokkur being the prima donna of the lot. If you aren't the video sorts, you basically stand around with your camera switched on, pointed at the geyser. At this point it's a test of your concentration, patience and reflexes. You could hear your heartbeat if it weren't for all the Asian chatter around you.

This is too early

This is too late.
This is just right.
It climbs much higher still though.
The triple point of water seems to have changed since the time I was in school.

And a magnificent waterfall, Gulfoss, which was supposed to become a hydro-generation centre but for the efforts of a certain lady who preserved it. Bloody hipsters.I mean, come on, if we start preserving all our waterfalls then where are we going to get all the renewable energy to power our Macbooks? We'll have to keep burning fossil fuel and as a result of all the water released by the melted ice, the waterfall will drown or disappear since there are no more glaciers left. And then, for a few seconds before we drown ourselves, we'll feel stupid.

Legend has it, a cowherd waded across to prove his love to a woman.
It would have been a shame if they checked on
Sunday afternoon and turned out to be cousins.

The Blue Lagoon

Some consider the Blue Lagoon just another hot water pool but commercialised and touristy as compared to the many free public pools in the city itself. I disagree. While it is just a pool, it is a pool well outside of the city, surrounded by snow covered hills, with the water a radioactive blue, and is a pretty cool spot to just go and hang around in for a while. They also offer drinks and some silicon mud concoction which exfoliates the skin and does other Cosmopolitan sounding stuff. It's quite near the airport so you could stop by on your way out, if you wanted to.

The pictures are a little foggy because of all the steam and
the physically demanding act of holding a camera up above the
water with sub-zero air temperatures for a few hours.
Having a bar in a pool is just inviting people to urinate.
I never asked where the blue comes from.
I presume the results look much better after you've washed it off.
"I think we're lost."
"Just look at the map!"
"There is no map."
"Goddamn it. I hate Hawaii."

Snowmobiling on the Langjokull Glacier

If you must do the Golden Circle, I recommend you pair it with a trip to the glacier, Langjokull. If not the glacier, look up other combinations that are offered where you get more punch per minute travelled and go for that. By the time we booked, the hikes were sold out so we went snowmobiling on it instead.

This is the macho-est vehicle ever seen.
It could compensate for a small penis, moobs,
and anything else that spam promises to fix.
They don't trust you on a snowmobile right away which is why they drive you
closer to the glacier in that macho bus to get your confidence up a little.
We were too chicken to keep a camera out while we were driving
so there is no video or photograph of the actual snow mobiling itself
That black spot is going to cost me a pretty penny to get cleaned.

Leidarendi Lava Tubes

Lava tubes are formed when lava flows through underground channels, and the outer layers start cooling and subsequently hardening whereas the insides stay molten, sort of like ice on lakes. This makes them into nice caves that you can walk through once the lava has drained out and shows no sign of returning. There are also bits that jut out so it would be an act of stupidity to go down wearing something delicate like a down jacket.

As an added bonus, they do a trippy experiment while you're inside. There is no penetration of any natural light so while you're deep inside, the guide suggests everyone switch off the headlamps and torches and not make a sound to feel what the cave is like when people aren't around. It was so black, it would put a death metal wardrobe too shame, while the silence is a school teacher's wet dream.

I had my camera accidentally set in low resolution during this sojourn inside and that has been added to the the list of regrets I have to carry to my deathbed. The pictures below are some of the better ones I could find.

They like their volcanoes so much that Icelandair
even names their aircraft after volcanoes.
When the massive eruption happened in 2010, the
wind currents apparently blew all the ash and smoke towards
Europe and Iceland airport were mostly operating as usual.
The entrance is a fun, slightly uncomfortable, narrow slide inside.

There are some tight spots, but you're walking upright for the most part.

But pictures of people walking upright wouldn't be as cool.

This is more red than it looks. Sigh.
It's the iron oxide that's formed from the dissolved air and the iron in the lava.

Maybe that sort of red.
If Silver Surfer and Batman had a love child, with
a superpower that it could transform into a rock.
This looks like a person wearing fab gloves flashing a middle finger
If you put a glass bottle filled to the brim with water
in a freezer it should crack open. Same thing.

Our body temperature is so warm compared to what the cave is used to that
you can't help but leave lasting imprints even when you didn't mean to.
They are actually very strict about leaving or modifying anything
inside. Everything must be left as it is. Take only pictures.

There are all sorts of martian water sculptures and if you're thirsty
you can just pull an icicle off of the ceiling and chew on it.
Try and pull the weak and insignificant ones to the side
and not the important ones centre top. Those are the ones that
aren't critical to the view being what it is. Just like society.

The only life that exists inside is this odd reflective bacteria.
Apparently nobody knows what it lives off,
like it's some sort of Victoria's Secret model.
The temperatures would have been so high that
the ripples and waves were inscribed into the rocks.
Rock stalagmites. Formed the same way how ice stalagmites are formed -
drops from the ceiling falling, and solidifying one on top of the other
No, stalactites are the ones that hang from the ceiling.

 The cooling happens in phases (or was it multiple times?) which
is why you have layers of rocks that could peel off like onions.
This part of the cave, possibly the
most stunning, is called the Chandelier.
(This is the roof.)

The Northern Lights

You can view the Northern Lights from the city itself but see them in all their splendour, you need to go to a place away from the light pollution of the city. If you're very lucky you'll see dancing, purple and red and green lights. Strong green lights is good fortune too. If you're very unlucky, you wouldn't see them at all apart from the other horrible thing that routinely happen to you anyway.

The viewing spot we went to is an area near the lava tubes of Leidarendi, into the hills. It's a vast open area and the temperatures are quite low in the evening. If there's a wind, it's because you or one of your group members are fresh out of hell and need to atone for the sins from a previous birth. I have never been so cold in my life. I haven't been to those godforsaken villages in Sibera which can reach -60 C or so, but I dread having to go there. The people there have my respect for making it alive through multiple winters, but also my puzzlement for choosing to stay. If you slip and land hard, I recommend you take it easy for the rest of the night. You won't realise how bad it is until you reach the warmer confines of your bed.

You just park and hang around for three or four hours, getting to know the others on the tour a bit. Our good tour operators, Happy World, included a star gazing session on the side during those lulls while one batch of lights have faded and the next batch hasn't come on yet. They also offer complimentary hot chocolate which might as well be the elixir of life at that point of time. I've borrowed some of their nicer pictures shot from a better camera, and hope they don't mind. I also hope the viewing spot was not some sort of trade secret.

My humble digicam trying its best.
If you've been putting off buying a good camera, I suggest you don't.

There is no guarantee you'll see the lights though so
Icelandair tries its best to minimise your disappointment.


Iceland is some sort of post-apocalyptic land of short buildings, little sunlight, and a lot of deserted terrain and snow. While you're landing, you can make out the one major road that circles the entire island connecting most of its towns and cities and vast swathes of barren land that look like the moon or Mars in greyscale. If you don't plan to go, at least watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

View of Reykjavik from atop Hallgrimskirkja - 1
View of Reykjavik from atop Hallgrimskirkja - 2
View of Reykjavik from atop Perlan -1
View of Reykjavik from atop Perlan -2
My new favourite skyline

Ever wondered how Santa Claus' factory is powered?

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