Travel

Pissing On Puffins

“You know, they piss on puffins,” my friend said, a couple of weeks before going to Iceland. “For fermentation or something. I dunno, I might be wrong.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “That will be the name of whatever I write about Iceland. ‘Pissing on Puffins’.”

I still haven’t fact-checked this.

Reykjavik

*

I’ve been fascinated with Iceland like most music geeks since Bjork became part of the global consciousness; but especially since her album ‘Homogenic’, which just sounded like Iceland, helped along by one of her only lyrics about geographical identity: “I thought I could organise freedom / How Scandinavian of me!” from ‘Hunter’. The album is full of blasts and mumbles of brass, like a whale breaching the waves, glaciers slowly crumbling, she sings against a very strong wind.

For a long time, Iceland was out of the question for tourists on a shoestring – like me. However, with the advent of competitive cheap airlines, and Iceland’s strategy of subsidising its airlines to get people from the Western Hemisphere to fly to Europe cheaply (if they stay at least a night there) Iceland is seeing a tourism boom.  In the local free mag, The Reykjavik Grapevine, I saw the ongoing polls on whether Icelanders ‘liked’ tourists, who come in pre-packaged droves. We’re still in their favour: for the realists, tourism is what will keep Iceland – a country so far removed from the oil game – afloat. The country is geographically, and geologically, astounding. My instagram feed has been inundated with snap-happy friends who can’t help but gush sharing their pics of the natural beauty of Iceland. It’s hard not to take enviable postcard perfect photos of the landscape, and those I saw accelerated my plans to go there.

***

 “If you are thirsty; retrieve cold water from the tap, and drink it,” one of us said in the hire car. By good fortune, three of my friends from Sydney were free to join me on the trip. We had done a little bit of study on what to see before we went, and noticed a peculiar way the hosts of travel programs overstated the obvious in an endearing way. It had become a running gag, and we indulged in impersonating the accent, which isn’t unique to Bjork, after all. “If you’re feeling light-headed, remember to take some breaths, you are still alive and should be breathing.” Sometimes we went too far, but our control from reality was the hire car guide to returning the car to the airport, the first step of which read: “1. Drive car to the airport.”

With four of us, hiring the car wasn’t as expensive as it might’ve been, and it allowed us the freedom to take road trips stopping where we liked along the way. On one such stop – for my bladder’s requirements – I hopped out of the car and was confronted by the country’s lack of trees. Seeing a hillock about a hundred metres from the car, I started for it, hoping the curvature would hide me somewhat. I didn’t get very far before an old man wearing a Norwegian brand pullover announced: “I wouldn’t bother with that.”
He had been loading camera equipment into his car, and I’d thought he was about to leave when we pulled up. I swung around and smiled, as an Australian does to a stranger, rearranging my face to utter ‘mate’ at any given notice. “Sorry?” I said.

“I wouldn’t bother walking down there. The ground is cracked and dangerous. It’s a forty minute walk to the beach. A lot further than the map suggests.”
He didn’t seem to wonder why I was the only one who got out of the car. My entire lower half felt full of urine.
“Oh, okay,” I said. “Thanks. I’m just going to–”
“If you want to see the birds, you should go further south,” he continued.
“Are there puffins this time of year?” I asked, genuinely wanting the information. He seemed like a fan.
“Oh yes,” he said, craning his neck to talk to my friends in the car. “Hello, where are you all from?”
My friends, at this point, were suppressing laughter.
“Australia,” one of us said.
“Oh!” said the man. “Amazing birds there.”
“So we shouldn’t bother here, then?” I asked, pretending I never left the car. “We really want to see puffins.”
“Yes, south. Go to Dyrhólaey.”
“Okay thanks very much,” I said and closed the car door. We drove off, my friends loving every moment of the exchange. “He just wouldn’t leave you alone!” they laughed.
“We need to stop again. Soon!” I said.

I managed to pee a little way down the road on the Reykjanes peninsula behind a taller hillock near the car park of Leif the Lucky’s Bridge. The bridge spans the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, marking not only Iceland’s geological position on the planet, but also its ties to both continents for free trade, and cultural influences. Before going to the country, my friends and I had read about the absence of McDonald’s on the island, and a cheeseburger that the nation has kept under glass, glacially decomposing for posterity. Based on this fact, we’d imagined a country doggedly anti-American, but, as we soon found out, KFC was a major player, and the queue at the new Dunkin Donuts in the town centre of Reykjavik was enormous. It turns out that Iceland is very similar to Australia in needing to claim uniqueness yet at the same time wholly embracing American culture, lest we get left behind.  This contradictory dynamic is better explained in this article, also in The Grapevine. Both countries’ geographical isolation contribute to a national character that seems preoccupied with what outsiders think of it. Gratifyingly, in another article, Australia is likened to Iceland, in a very good explanation of the Nordic countries to English-speakers.
As we crossed the footbridge over continents and looked down into the shallow ravine, we saw USA spelled out with rocks. Without discussing it, we impulsively rushed down to rearrange the superpower into a cock and balls.

Leif the Lucky Bridge

Later, in Reykjavik, we went to the Penis Museum. It is a collection of one man (not all are his own!), who decided one day to make money from sharing them with the public. Among all the whale private parts and the microscopic hamster’s, my friend Sam’s favourite penis was the elf’s, which was suspended in an empty jar.

Penis Museum

Killer Whale Penis

*

We decided to base ourselves in Reykjavik, taking day trips in the car, and the four of us shared an apartment in the downtown area near the water. The apartment’s elevator was “the oldest in Iceland” – as our host explained – and worked in a very perfunctory manner, the door closing with a Fuck You crash and, one imagined, a deep, long-suffering sigh. It was mildly scary, and it prompted Sam to take the stairs every time.

Reykjavik

Hallgrimskirkja

Reykjavik is a cute Scandinavian-looking town, with the ice-sculpturesque Hallgrimskirkja lutheran church towering above it, and the crystalline Harpa concert hall welcoming the boats in the harbour. The weather in mid-August was similar to winter in Australia – three layers were necessary in the gloomier moments, but we figured you couldn’t go to a country called ‘Iceland’ and expect a tan.

Harpa

The Blue Lagoon

Before we did the tourist staple of going to the Blue Lagoon, we tried one of Reykjavik’s local thermal spring pools, Laugardalslaug, which was a tenth of the price with less people and the same 38-39C water caressing our ailing bodies. It was perhaps better to go there first, however, because the experience of the Blue Lagoon was something else all together. If you were really strapped for cash, or travelling solo, I’d recommend just the local pool, but for a mesmeric, otherworldly experience, the Blue Lagoon still delivers, despite the tourist trappings of the restaurant (“If you would like something to eat before or after your swim in the Blue Lagoon, you can buy food at the Blue Lagoon restaurant”), and gift shop: just bring your own towels and take a packed lunch and eat in the parking lot.
The pools at the Blue Lagoon (or ‘Bláa lónið’ in Icelandic) aren’t natural – they’re man made and fed by the nearby geothermal power plant, but the bottom is not tiled, and the contrivance of the place is that it sprang up naturally in the middle of a lava field. Steam rises from the pools creating an atmosphere not unlike a science fiction alien planet where unknown monsters lurk underwater. We spent well over an hour there, submerged and wrinkling.

*

Kirkjufell

As only Sam and Phiona had driving licenses, I was given the task of finding places to drive to, while they did the driving. I chose places through a mixture of online research and hearsay, relying on people’s superlative recommendations. After the Blue Lagoon and other places on the Reykjanes Peninsula, we decided to go North-West to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which I’d heard had some of the most breath-taking scenery not too far from Reykjavik. After some time driving, we came across a waterfall casually cascading by the side of the road. This was actually the first – and smallest – of many by the side of the road, but the whole car made the sound of seeing a basket of puppies suddenly, and we promptly pulled over to take photos. From Borgarnes, we drove straight to the northern coast of the peninsula to Grundarfjörður, the nearest town to the “most photographed mountain in Iceland”, Kirkjufell – which, when shared on social media, got comments like: “Holy shit”, and “Bloody hell m8”.

Little Black Church

From there we cut across the peninsula, south, to the little black church at Búðir, and experienced the world’s most expensive and unceremonious soup in Arnarstapi. The landscape the entire way was a photo-op, which made the trip an entire day’s worth of travelling.

The next day was Iceland’s biggest cultural festival in Reykjavik, Menningarnott, so we stayed put, wandered the downtown, and watched people set up the stages for the many live music performances to be played around the city that night. Later, we met up with some Icelanders Phiona had met while doing the Hinchinbrook Island trek in Queensland. They answered our random questions about their country, like whether Iceland was the largest producer of bananas in Europe, and whether or not they pissed on puffins.

“I don’t know about that,” said Jakob, “but they pissed on the shark meat for fermentation, yes. Have you tried whale yet?”

*

The next day we drove towards Vik on the southern coast. It was at nearby Dyrhólaey where we would see puffins in the wild, and on the way there were several waterfalls worth checking out. At a petrol station on the outskirts of Reykjavik a young Frenchman approached our car.

“Hello!” he said. “Are you going to Vik?”

“Yes,” one of us said.

“Can I come along?” he said, more than asked. (Hitchhiking is still big on the island.)

“We’re quite full,” we said, reluctant to have our group dynamic shaken.

“I can see there’s room for me in the back!” he said, cheerfully.

Not wanting to be rude – and not really knowing how to excuse ourselves from the situation – we agreed to take him with us.

Eliot was 6’5″ and perched spider-like between Sophie and I in the back seat. He had a practiced jollity he must have been using on his drivers during his hitchhiking trip around Europe which had led him here. He was only 21, with the bluster of an educated male Engineering student, which is what he was. The hitchhiking part of his ‘journey’, we assumed, was more about status than actual vagrantism, but he was an inquisitive and smart guy all the same. He had been without any news for weeks and Phiona asked him if he’d heard about the attempted train-hijacking in France. Eliot hadn’t and asked where it had been. Phiona tried semi-successfully with the pronunciation of Oignies, to which our hitchhiker exclaimed, “That’s right near my town!”

Seljalandsfoss

Skógafoss

After the passive-aggressive way in which Eliot integrated himself into our car, we got some joy in stopping wherever we liked along the way, notably Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, making him increasingly agitated. These waterfalls were along Iceland’s ring road number 1, near the volcano Eyjafjallajökull – the one that caused air traffic delays that time in 2010, and the one Icelanders enjoy getting foreigners to try and pronounce (this delight is printed on an assortment of souvenirs). Eliot seemed to have mastered it, and Sam was getting there, but I still needed practice. The problem lies in the ‘ll’ sound of Icelandic, which is ostensibly a ‘tl’ sound, but really a breathy intake with the tongue positioned to sound a normal ‘l’, but completely voiceless, and more like something you’d say to a horse. Anyway, here’s a tutorial, and another article on the matter.

Dyrhólaey

We got to Dyrhólaey, where Eliot treated himself to a beer and can of beans (the lid of which he bent and used as a spoon), and we excitedly traipsed to the edge of the cliffs to spot puffins. The sky was so murky and heavy with rain that it seemed nothing except tourists were active, until I turned and saw Sophie and Phiona waving at me to come see something.

Puffin

Stock photo

“I was just taking a photo of the cliffs, but I got a snap of a puffin, too!” said Phiona. And sure enough, there the puffins were, over the sea, fishing and diving and returning to the cliffs intermittently, flapping their narrow marine bird wings so fast they looked like the offspring of a penguin and a hummingbird. I watched entranced, birds being a youthful passion of mine, the puffin one on the bucket list. I clambered along the cliffs to get closer, but they were so fast and tiny, it was impossible to take all their features in. I waited for a busload of tourists to vacate the lookout point I was at, and finally caught sight of a puffin ambling along the edge of the cliff before diving off it out to sea once more. Sam came along just as several more swooped over us, bringing a surprising joy to us both.

*

Þingvellir

Geysir

Gullfoss

Other notable places we went to were Þingvellir National Park and Geysir, as well as Gullfoss – a spectacular waterfall system that you can get right on top of. Iceland was everything I’d hoped it would be, and a week is not enough time to see it all. I hope to return one day. But, it’s time to do research, and I can tell you, dear reader, that the Vikings did indeed piss on puffins:

Two specialty dishes, eaten on exceptional occasions, are worthy of mention – if one has a strong stomach! The first delicacy was putrefied shark. After catching and killing the shark, it would be gutted, cut into large pieces and washed. A large hole in coarse gravel would be dug (well away from inhabited houses as the smell was something akin to stagnant urine!), and the fish placed therein, being pressed together firmly. More gravel and heavy rocks would be placed on top and left for about 6 – 7 weeks (3 months in winter), after which time it would be dug up, reeking of ammonia, and then hung in a drying shack for 2 – 4 months. It was then ready for eating. Puffin meat was treated similarly, and according to some sources, a refinement, included somewhere during the process, required Vikings to urinate upon the puffin, before it was dug up and cured! It was then ready to be eaten. (Yum Yum!) Fish that has been urinated upon is still eaten on occasion in Iceland today.

I hope to write more soon. This time about New York and Texas!

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