30 October 2006

Hákarl brings people together (part 1)

As those of you who've been inspecting my photo page know, I went on an incredibly memorable trip this past weekend to Europe's most active volcano, Grímsvötn. This was already an unusual enough prospect in itself, but the divergence from previous trips in the highland direction began almost immediately. On the way up to the standard highland starting-point of Hrauneyjar, we took a right turn off the dark road in Þjórsárdalur. After an increasingly skinny progression of roads and a few hairpin turns, we ended up in a silent, slightly protected valley where a rough shed stood, its unlatched door flapping in the breeze. We ducked inside and piled our clothes on the bench inside, then out the opposite side, stepped into a deep, square tub of perfectly warm water. This complex had originally been built for sheep-washing, but now is almost entirely forgotten, save a few savvy bathers. I haven't been to many of these hidden springs, but this was definitely the most developed and the most hidden I've been to. After a frowzy day at work, tempestuous stormy weather in Reykjavík, and the frenzy of getting out of town on a Friday, this was also the perfect way to detach and forget about everything.

We then continued on to the meeting-point of the group I was going with, the end-of-civilization stop at Hrauneyjar. I'd last been there in August on one of the biggest travel weekends of the summer, and the change was noticeable. Last time, the place sprouted with lopapeysa-wearing Icelanders, Italians on motorcycles, Hungarian power trucks, and scads of other foreigners. This time it was only our group (a posse of mountain guides that are G's friends, most of whom I'd never met), the cook of the place, B, a Swedish woman who might or might not have been B's wife, and two French tourists. The French guys had heard Landmannalaugar was The place to visit in Iceland, so they'd arrived and attempted a few kilometers into the highlands before they decided their vehicle was totally unfit for the trip ahead.

Things began ordinarily enough- we ordered food, we coordinated with the other members of the group who were in various locations either further ahead or not quite there, we looked at the maps of the trip plan....

and then came the hákarl. One of the guys in the group (H) had been given an extraspecial chunk of the famous Icelandic putrid shark delicacy, which he'd cut up into proper chunks- none of those "tourist bits", as he called the little morsels you can buy in the airport. I'll confess that I had not yet tasted this stuff, but as the only girl and the only foreigner in this group I was entrusting my life to for the weekend, I knew I had to finally take the plunge. H extended the Toothpick of Challenge across the map spread on the table, and I went for it. It went down surprisingly easily, and then, high on my glee of Finally Eating Shark, I went to offer some to the French guys, and then innkeeper B had to have some too. This resulted in him producing the celebratory bottle of Brennivín, and he poured shots for all, overpouring mine on to the table and floor in his generous enthusiasm.

Somehow everyone- innkeeper and Swedish lady, French guys, and our group ended up at a table together after B brought out the stereo to add atmosphere (I seem to recall it was Irish tunes with Icelandic lyrics....). We explained the relative merits of going-out places in town for the French guys, we discussed the merits of the excellent shark (by then I'd had two more pieces and was well on my way to foreigner-expert status), B and G discussed how they were from the same tiny town on the south coast, and I was busy listening and translating from all directions, as the only one who had a chance of understanding the three primary languages of the table (there was a sprinkling of German too, at times).

Then, up sprang B to offer the next treat that Hrauneyjar was hiding, the hot tub. He dashed outside to fill it, then returned with his arms overflowing with towels for all of us. Eventually we did end up out there, but it was not quite as warm and cozy as the sheep-tub earlier in the night, since the area lacks the body-scorching naturally heated water. Still, we had to stick around in thanks for his tremendous hospitality, especially when he brought out pints of beer for all. To keep the teeth from chattering, we all sang songs, and then when we couldn't stand it anymore, we headed down the little corridor in the back to sleep while the wind whistled round the building.

The next morning I awoke to a 10-minute cycle of techno cell-phone alarm clock music coming from across the hall where the French guys remained resolutely in bed. When it finally ceased, I dozed off, and then the next thing I heard was B calling to them that they'd been invited to join our group and that he was making us all egg and bacon breakfasts. I rolled out of bed, suited up in cozy clothes for the trek ahead and went to the kitchen where hot coffee and two kinds of juice waited. B then came out with massive plates laden with toast, two eggs (he cooks a mean over-easy egg), a tangle of bacon, and a hillside of fries (fries at breakfast?). With the exception of H-the-younger, we were all defeated by the stack of fries, but B was undaunted and offered us more eggs or extra toast, then hangikjöt sandwiches and a carafe of coffee for lunch. Because we were adding two more to the group, the then plied us with food for dinner as well- potatoes, and since he didn't have any lambchops, a massive reindeer steak and several bottles of wine. I'm not sure if it was the strange emptiness of the place in the off-season, the mutual acquaintances, or the hákarl that did it, but we left much richer than we'd arrived, and with two French guys too.

So we climbed into the two Land Rovers and headed northeast, following the dirt roads into the highlands and to the edge of the glacier.


BMP said...

Well written. Sounds like you had a great weekend! The areas you visited and the pictures your took were spectacular

ECS said...

greetings BMP (are you new here? Do I know you outside blogland?). This is only the beginning of the tour, but there's so much that I want to remember that I've decided to split it into three posts for each of the phases of the trip. More later this week, and until then you can speculate based on the photos.

sb said...

You are living such an adventure! Wow

I've never seen all the places of my own country, which you've seen.

And ;D I've never had shark .... euwh, eurgh, choke choke bad stench :D

I wish we could see photos also of all the festivities :D

I'm Yalous (jealous)...but I'm so happy for you that you're having this phantastic experience

BMP said...

I met you briefly a few weekends ago with G. Didn't get too much of a chance to speak with you but I was intrigued by your "story." MH said you were a fantastic writer (and I agree) sooo here I am. I fell in love with Iceland. Beautiful country and in many ways untouched by some of the things that make other places less comfortable

ECS said...

SB- I actually was thinking of your brother when I was driving up there, since he told me I absolutely must try it sometime and that the experience was totally unlike anything else. As for the shark, it's not so bad, really, although I have no photos to prove that I ate it!

BMP- of course I remember who you are! Glad to see you stopped by, and I hope you send me those photos you got sometime soon.

tsduff said...

Absolutely fabulous job in recounting your adventure! I love the shark part - I first tried it in the little tourist sized bite on the end of a toothpick, with copious amounts of Brennivin. I don't know what all the fuss is about - as its smell is much worse than its bite... sort of like a strong smelly cheese would be. You are a brave soul - so willing to try out all of these adventures. (I have a bit of fear surrounding driving up a sheer, crumbly, sandy, icy mountainside with cracks of unknown purportions underneath...)I'd be quite worried)

ECS said...

Terry- good to have some more utlendingur input that it's not so bad! As for the brave soul thing, I was with a group of people that have cumulatively gone to the north pole, biked the width of Vatnajokull, skied across Iceland, climbed Everest, and various other extreme activities that definitely made this trip probably feel pretty tame to them.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry but the mobile telephone which made unbearable technomusic, was mine! Sorry!!!