Its been almost 4 years since I traveled to Iceland now, but it still seems like a yesterday when I got off that plane and stepped onto that icy land. It is such a strange and fascinating country, it was probably the first country I’d been too that possessed such a distinctively different culture to my own. That being said not all of my experiences in Iceland were good ones, so I decided to compile some of my overall thoughts on the country.
First of all Iceland is geographically beautiful, its landscape is akin to a primeval planet Earth and its so varied. From blasted lava fields to towering glaciers and roaring waterfalls, Iceland pretty much has it all for such a small country. However don’t go thinking you can see it all in one trip, you can’t. Though Iceland is pretty small by global standards its still a big place and there is simply so much to see, for the few days I was there I remained entirely within the south west of the country and my days were utterly jam-packed. For a geography trip there is no better country in the world, for instance most of the waterfalls I saw were initially sea cliffs, however over the centuries, as Iceland slowly expanded the coastline receded and today these cliffs and waterfalls mark the boundary between the Icelandic Highlands and Lowlands.
Weather-wise Iceland is pretty temperamental, there’s a saying that if you don’t like the weather in Iceland you only have to close your eyes for 20 seconds and when you open them the weather will be completely different. Can’t say I really experienced that as for almost every single day we hadabsolutely brilliant sunshine and blue skies. The surrounding ocean and the Gulf Stream means the Iceland is fairly warm in comparison to its position in the world. However that doesn’t matter as the wind makes it feel 20 degrees colder than it actually is and, believe me, Iceland is very windy. Every time I took my gloves off to take a picture I would rapidly lose feeling in my hands as the wind is just so brutally cold, it got to the point where I was reluctant to take any pictures since it mean’t I’d have to take off my precious ski gloves. Perhaps my favourite moments in Iceland were the times when we were out of the wind or it had died down, such as during our walk around Kerio. Secondly although the weather was mostly sunny, Iceland was still very wet, likely because of the all the waterfalls we were visiting. The spray from these falls meant the ground under foot was often very icy and slippery, making walking around pretty precarious at some points.
Another new experience was the daylight hours in Iceland, we traveled to Iceland in February, which mean’t we didn’t get any eternal nights fortunately and the sun usually set at around 5 o’clock, which is the usual winter time in the UK. However the sun didn’t rise until 11 in the morning and even then it never reached its full height in the sky, making it feel like you were in a perpetual late afternoon. This meant though that there was plenty of opportunities to see the Northern Lights and I’ll be honest this was one of the main reasons I went, everyone had told me that the Northern Lights were one of these incredible awe-inspiring sights that you simply had to see. I’d seen pictures and satellite videos of the event and it looked amazing, plus weather reports were saying that there would be strong Northern lights appearing throughout January-February, so I simply couldn’t wait. For our second night, the school had booked us into a lodge based in the Icelandic countryside where our best bet of the seeing the lights were, however on our first evening we left our hotel in Reykjavik and headed to the beach to see if we could catch a sight of the lights and low and behold we did.
I didn’t see an unearthly light show like I’d been expecting but rather a pale, slightly greenish cloud in the sky. We weren’t even sure that’d we’d actually seen the lights until we got back to the hotel and some of the students with better cameras were able to pick them up. To be fair it was a very weak aurora borealis and we still had our lodge the next day, and I’d hoped we’d see something better. But when we arrived at the lodge, despite the night being perfectly clear, we didn’t head out at all; despite the whole point of the lodge being so we could see the Northern Lights. I felt like our teachers had simply decided that our one view of the Northern Lights was good enough but I certainly didn’t feel that way, I’d barley seen anything and it definitely wasn’t strong enough to show up on my little digital camera, so I was disappointed in that regard, but in a way it just gives me more reason to go back.
When I’ve traveled to places like America, Australia, even mainland Europe and Singapore there has always been a distinct similarities, such as the presence of the English language and common global brands. However in Iceland its all very unfamiliar territory, its one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have a McDonalds, not a bad thing at all, but it does help create a sense of cultural isolation. Especially when the culture is as strong and as loved as the Icelandic culture, Icelanders are very proud of the culture and this is evident in their rich folklore. For instance one of the most sighted statics about Iceland is that 50% of the population believe in elves, however these ‘elves’ aren’t really what we’d considered to be elves at all. In Iceland they are called the Hidden People and by all accounts they look exactly like you and me, except they tend to be dressed in fine and expensive clothes; they live in the Icelandic countryside, hidden among the caves, trees, hills and lava strewn boulder fields, always staying out of sight of people and to see one is to be cursed. They range from malevolent to peaceful beings and some Icelanders offer gifts of food and clothes to sites where the Hidden People live, many Icelanders take the view that just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist and why take the risk by assuming they don’t exist. This sort of prevailing folklore really fascinates me and there is plenty of examples of it in Iceland.
Then there’s the language….woo boy this was tough. Icelandic, for me, is a very hard language to pronounce as it bares no resemblance to any language that I’ve ever seen. Often when I was looking at these words I didn’t know where to start with pronouncing them and there are no latinised words to help me. I remember viewing every word as a mile long, though looking back that may not have been the case. Although I try to learn a couple of sentences in every country I go to, in Iceland I only manged ‘takk’ which means thanks in English, this is as opposed to thank you which translates to ‘Þakka þér fyrir’, and I don’t even know when to begin with that.
However my biggest problem with Iceland was the formal changing rooms and showers. Icelanders take their cleanliness very seriously, there are strict rules you must abide by and while we had been warned about this I can’t deny that it was still a bit of shock when I walked into the Blue Lagoon changing rooms and was greeted by a number of huge naked Icelandic men. Considering that we are all around 16/17 and we were all at school with each other made for a very uncomfortable changing session. Fortunately at the Blue Lagoon there was a small number of private changing cubicles and you were allowed to shower with your swimming trunks on. Que the scene of around 20 teenage boys all lining up to use a couple of private changing rooms. However things got worse when we were taken to a local swimming pool one evening in which there were no private rooms, while we all could mange to get changed most of us weren’t up to showering naked together, however the results certainly infuriated a number of local Icelanders who yelled at my classmates and apparently, according to the one English-speaking Icelander in the room, were told that their actions were a disgrace to Iceland and that they were insulting the country with their reluctance to shower naked. Fortunately I escaped this scathing criticism but it left many of my classmates rather rattled at the end of the day.
Would I go again to Iceland, hell yes. but maybe next time I’ll avoid the swimming pools.
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