Iceland: Day 2 – Hellnar, Arnarstapi

The chemistry lab

While brushing my teeth the next morning, I realised that the water coming from the tap smelled foul. In India, where the infrastructure can be patchy, this usually means sewage leaking into your water supply.

The odour was a throwback to the “salt analysis” chemistry lab exercises of high school. We spent a considerable time fiddling with Kipp’s apparatus and inhaling not so insignificant quantities of Hydrogen Sulphide for science. We were told that the horrid smell of the gas was similar to that of rotten eggs. Since we had never had the misfortune of smelling rotten eggs before, we just believed what the textbooks told us. Either way, this isn’t a smell you can easily forget.

We knew that Iceland had a lot of geysers and maybe that had something to do with the smell. An internet search allayed our fears. Hot water from the geysers is indeed supplied into old houses in Reykjavik. And it’s just the hot water that carries the sulphurous smell. The cold water is fine1. We’d have to be careful about what we cooked and did our dishes with.

The drive to Hellnar

It was a rainy day in Iceland. Our plan was to head north-west from Reykjavik to Hellnar and Arnarstapi – a good 200 KM drive one way – and make our way back in the evening. Along the way, rains permitting, we would make a few stops and soak in the scenery.

Within a few minutes drive from Reykjavik, we found ourselves amidst views like these:

Another few minutes of driving and we reached the Hvalfjörður tunnel. It was probably the longest tunnel I’ve crossed in a car. You can feel the intense air pressure squeezing your eardrums as you go further into the tunnel. When we emerged at the other end after what felt like an eternity, the rain was beginning to pick up a little. Our breakfast hadn’t been very significant and the worsening weather was the perfect excuse for a short break.

The restaurant we chose to stop at, offered sweet and savoury baked goods of various kind, and basic sandwiches. The biggest draw for us was the unlimited refills of decent filter coffee. The windows of the restaurant offered a panoramic view of distant hills shrouded in clouds. A few printed stills from the movie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, had been pasted above the windows. After looking at them for a few seconds and tallying them with the view outside, it dawned on us that we had stumbled upon the very same restaurant where a scene from the movie had been shot2.

The rest of our journey to Hellnar was punctuated by several stops and detours in accordance with the picturesqueness of the scenery and the intensity of the rain.


Hellnar felt like a point at the edge of the world. In a sense, it was.

It was past lunch time, so we prepared cup-noodles by heating water on a small camping stove. It still drizzled, but having been energised by our meagre but hot meal, we decided to explore a bit on foot. A few meters off our parking spot, was a path paved in wood that would’ve dropped us off to a trail that went all the way to our next stop – the village of Arnarstapi.

But since the weather was still looking a little uncertain, we decided to get into the car and head north via a scenic route through the mountain roads around the Snæfellsjökull glacier.

A detour

I never learned to drive. The place where I grew up in Delhi, did not have a clear motor-able access to our house until the past few years. And even then the parking situation causes petty squabbles between the neighbours to this date. So Dad never got a car and brought us up to believe that cars were a wasteful luxury we didn’t really need. The wife is learning to drive. Given my shortsightedness and a tendency to daydream, I am not so inclined. Driving would go against a lifetime of conditioning. Plus, with public transport in Europe being what it is, driving brings little convenience, if any, to my daily routine. Perhaps we are all doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents.

That said, on this trip, with two driving enthusiasts for company, I picked up a good deal of automotive lore. For instance, the rough, unpaved, mountain roads in Iceland are labeled beginning with an ‘F’. Probably to indicate suitability for a four-wheel drive only.

Our journey uphill on road F570 began ominously. Our car lurched this way and that. In some parts the climb was so steep that I wasn’t sure if we’d make it or slide down backwards. Since our friend driving the car was unfazed, I just held on to my seatbelt and put all my effort into enjoying the view of mossy outcrops of lava. The loose, poorly tarred road itself seemed indistinguishable from a lava field. We stopped briefly, ostensibly to enjoy the view. In reality, given the horror writ large on my face, the stop was just to make sure that I’d last the whole ride.

Since we were driving close to a glacier, patches of snow were visible all around us.

One such patch, barely 10m x 2m lay ahead of us. We nonchalantly drove the vehicle right into it. Once the entire length of the vehicle was inside the snow, it stalled. No matter what we’d do, it wouldn’t budge. The right front tire and the left rear tire spun furiously but they just couldn’t muster enough traction to let us propel us forwards or backwards.

We weren’t all that far from civilisation, our phones were working and we had enough food and water to last us a couple of days. So while this was a peculiar situation, it was hardly a life threatening one. Very fortunately for us, a huge excavator was working on the road just a few meters ahead from our stalled car. Our friend ran down to it and was shortly riding towards us with the excavator’s operator. For a small fee of 5.000 ISK (some 34 €), we were towed out of our ill-advised digression.

We were told that the condition of the road ahead wasn’t much better and we were likely to encounter similar patches of snow. The irony of a vehicle called Yeti3 struggling to manoeuvre through a smattering of snow wasn’t lost on us. We cut our adventure short and went back to Hellnar on the very route we had covered so far. We stopped along the way near the Sönghellir cave to let our adrenaline rush wear down. The cave itself was closed for some geological study but a break was welcome.

Arnarstapi at last

At Arnarstapi, our next destination just a short drive off Hellnar, a gravel walking path took us to a soft, grassy plateau that ended abruptly a few feet above the ocean.

The rain had died down and a strange calm had enveloped the surroundings. I wondered if it was the hush of the imminent, long arctic winter. The high ground offered us an unobstructed view of a distant mountain range and the horizon.

Jagged rocks of vaguely volcanic origin jutted out from the ocean in front of us. Sea gulls had appropriated them as their roosting site.

The collective, contrapuntal cacophony of hundreds of sea gulls was very unnerving.

It was around 6:30 in the evening. The sun wouldn’t go down for another three hours and yet it was very low in the sky already. It cast an eerie glow on the horizon, as if demarcating ocean from the sky. The light had a surreal, hypnotic quality that stirred something atavistic within me. I had to be gently persuaded to leave that spot for our journey back to Reykjavik.

The road to Reykjavik

By the time we hit the highway, the clouds had mostly disappeared. We stopped on the way at what looked like a temporary swamp that a formed after the day’s rain. The hills across it reflected in its clear water.

The whole view was beautiful and yet a little underwhelming at the same time. Iceland is just not the same without its dramatic, cloudy skies. Our stop was cut short by a ferocious horde of bloodthirsty mosquitos. So numerous were they, that it was impossible take a picture without getting them into the frame4. We ran back into the car.

This time I sat next to the driver’s seat and made this time-lapse video of the drive.

It was almost 11 at night when we reached Reykjavik. We weren’t sure if we were going to find any restaurants open at that time so we drove straight to a Dominos outlet. The staff at this outlet was exceptionally helpful, but the food was exactly what you’d expect at a Dominos. After a day like this, I don’t think we cared.

1. And very delicious. Yes, water is supposed to be tasteless but that’s because taste is a very crude term for the sensation you feel when drinking water. Theres texture, pH and that something special that I can’t quite put my finger on. In India, the municipal supply is heavily chlorinated and no one drinks water straight from the tap unless they have a death wish. On moving to Amsterdam, consuming water straight from our taps had felt like a luxury that we got used to in no time. I’d found it very odd when a colleague, originally from Iceland, had complained about how hard the water in the Netherlands was. I finally understood what he had meant. “Better not get used to Icelandic tap water”, I told myself.↩︎

2. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is set in 2002 but was shot in 2012/2013. Papa Johns had already pulled out of Iceland in 2003, so they must have converted the restaurant where we were eating into a branded pizza outlet. I very much doubt if this is where the original outlet used to be.

Iceland has a tempestuous history with American fast food chains. When McDonald opened its first outlet there in 1993, the then prime minister himself was in attendance to eat the very first burger to come off the grill. Sadly, McDonald’s closed shortly after the financial crises of 2008. The first Dunkin Donuts outlet had opened just a couple of weeks before our visit and enthusiastic locals were still thronging to it.

This article in a local tabloid, did a wonderful job of demystifying Iceland’s relationship with American fast food chains.↩︎

3. We had hired a 4×4 called Škoda Yeti for this trip. They say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. I posit a corollary: there is no such thing as bad roads, only bad tyres.↩︎

4. Just thinking about this moment is making me itchy.↩︎

Iceland: Day 1

Ever since I finished reading The Shipping News, I’ve been yearning after a trip to a cold and isolated place. Given how accessible Iceland is from Amsterdam, it was a natural choice.

Our flight was in the afternoon on a Sunday so packing and getting to the airport were a relaxed affair. We were flying Iceland Air and had checked in online for a speedy baggage drop-off. Unfortunately, Iceland Air were underprepared for the influx of summer tourists. We had to wait for close to an hour to drop our bags off – only to find out upon reaching the checkin counter that our carefully selected seats had been changed to an aisle and middle. Even the possibility of casting furtive glances through our co-passenger’s window had been taken from us as the window seat overlooked the plane’s enormous wing.

The rest of the journey was quite unremarkable – as journeys by a plane should be. There were plenty of movies on the plane but I spent most of my time listening to a new Spotify playlist, eating my hot oatmeal (and trying to keep it down – oatmeal on flights is a bad idea!) and staring at the flight path. I adjusted my watch to 2 hours behind European Summer Time as we neared landing. All these years of flying, and it is still thrilling to be able to borrow extra hours of daylight in a new city.

A friend who had joined us for the trip had agreed to drive us around. Upon collecting our bags, we did the paperwork for our car and headed to our apartment in Reykjavik city centre.

The apartment had a little kitchenette, but there wasn’t space or ingredients to cook a full meal for three so we stepped out. Just a street down our apartment, a restaurant offered such culinary adventures as puffins and whales. Barely a couple of kilometres from the city centre, tourists queue up to hop on a boat which takes them to the remote, frigid waters of North Atlantic ocean to see these very creatures. The irony was not lost on us. Being vegetarians, we settled for something way more mundane and reliable – pizzas.

We had been warned that eating out in Iceland was going to be an expensive affair. A Euro gets you around 150 Icelandic Kroners. That might sound like a decent amount, but it doesn’t go very far1. A meal can easily cost 2-2.5 times the price in Amsterdam and Amsterdam is not a cheap European city to start with. To avoid a hefty food bill, we resolved to eat at least breakfasts at our apartment and procured some groceries at Iceland’s answer to the 7-Eleven chain – 10-11.

There were two main grocery chains in Reykjavik. Bonus and 10-11. Bonus is definitely the better of the two (cleaner and broader selection of food) but the 10-11 stores are open longer. It was difficult to find good bread in either stores – something we have come to take for granted in Amsterdam, where even the neighbourhood grocery chains bake fresh bread pretty much all day long. The first thing we came across at the 10-11 store we visited, was a stack of pita bread that carried a nasty patch of green mould. This put us off bread for a while and we settled for milk and cereal.

With dinner and groceries done and still plenty of daylight left (the sun sets around 9:30 PM at this time of the year), we took a little walk around Reykjavik.

Our first stop was to visit Sólfar – the large, stainless steel boat sculpture by the sea.

I didn’t take a lot of time composing this picture as I assumed there’ll be plenty of other opportunities to perfect this shot later. We discovered later that it was popular with families with small kids. Every time we came here next, children were dangling from different parts of the sculpture as if this were a play area in a park. And those distant boats between the “forks” had seemed like a good idea back then but in hindsight, I should have let them pass.

Across the road from the walking path along the sea were some modern, high-rise apartments. Had I tried to extrapolate the cost of food we had just eaten to the cost of apartments with a view like that, I would have run out of digits.

There was a white apartment complex that looked lived in. Next to it was a glass-panelled black high-rise that seemed like it had sprung up recently. Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith.

We then passed by Harpa concert hall on our way to the old harbour area. Outside the hall was a sculpture of the Danish cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson. The thing that struck me as unusual was that he did not have a bow to play the cello with. Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence began to play in my head. Looking at the picture now, I realise that the cello is also missing strings2.

With the coming of evening, the wind had died down a little. A vague smell of raw fish hung in the air around the harbour.

Several small, motor-powered boats of different shapes were parked at the harbour. Their hulls reflected in the still water.

We were beginning to feel a little sleepy and decided that this was enough adventuring for the first day. We walked away from the harbour into the city centre. Lights were coming on inside homes and shops. Their warm glow reminded me of Christmas. A lot of shops prominently featured patterned jumpers3 in their show windows and that must’ve also added to the effect.

The wind picked up again once the sun went down and reminded us that our apartment beds, despite being a little too soft for our taste, would feel very welcoming. The wind was right.

1. I might be sceptical about the long-term future of the Euro, but even I enjoy the convenience of not having to withdraw a new currency and not having to do mental maths to figure out how much something *actually* costs when traveling in Europe. Since an Icelandic Kroner (ISK) is about half the value of an Indian Rupee, we used that as a starting point to gauge the real worth of things. It soon dawned upon us that after all these years away from India, we really had no idea what inflation must be doing to the purchasing power of the Indian Rupee. We figured it was simpler to drop a zero from the ISK price and dividing the result by 15. If I have one good thing to say about math education in school, it is that they really drill the multiplication tables from 2 to 20 into your heads.↩︎

2. Which also reminds me of that scene from The Pianist where Szpilman (Adrian Brody) comes across a piano while he is in hiding but cannot play it for the fear of being discovered by his neighbours. He eventually plays it silently – fingers dancing a few inches above the the keys.↩︎

3. They looked uncomfortable in 14ºC, but must be very warm and inviting in the harsh Icelandic winters.↩︎

Mariza in Amsterdam

Mariza performed at the Concertgebouw last week and we happened to be in attendance. That she is a talented Fado singer is something I knew from her recordings. Turns out, she is also an engaging performer.

At one point she asked the audience if we could sing along a couple of lines from Rosa Branca. She’d sing:

Quem tem, quem tem
Amor a seu jeito

And we’d simply have to reply with:

Colha a rosa branca
Ponha a rosa ao peito

Most of us laughed because we thought it was some kind of practical joke. There were islands of Portuguese speakers in the audience, but by and large, the audience did not know Portuguese. Written down this way, these might not seem like a lot of words. But to sing something quickly after hearing it for the first time in a new language felt like an insurmountable challenge. Mariza divided the hall into five sections and section by section we mastered these lines and eventually sung with her.

Her troupe was very talented too. I guess to perform internationally at this level you need to be. Since most of them had their own solo careers, the program for the evening was organised in such a way that the members of the troupe also got to perform their works without Mariza getting all the limelight. Literally so – she’d step off the stage and let the members of the troupe take over!

When the concert ended, she thanked everyone involved in producing the show by name – right down to the person controlling the lights on stage and her makeup assistant – a kind gesture one doesn’t encounter often. Usually it’s the diva and the countless, nameless others that work in the shadows.

And then came the encores, which went a full fifty minutes over the scheduled time. She joined the audience, sung numbers the audience kept requesting and even welled up a little at all the adulation she got from the crowd.

And to think she’d be performing all over again in Hungary the very next day…

p.s. Given that Concertgebouw is a venue I usually associate with the dry, formal atmosphere of Western Classical performances, the warm and intimate air of this performance felt pleasantly out of place.

p.p.s. I have no idea how I came across Mariza’s first album. I was already listening to Fado 10 years ago and buying CDs online. I suspect that it might’ve been a recommendation by Amazon.

Anyway, a CD of hers went with me on long drive from Bangalore to Shimoga once. I had no idea what my friends made of the music, but they put up with it. I even remember one of them asking if I knew what “tristeza”, a word that came up a lot in the song Ó Gente Da Minha Terra, meant. (It means sadness, which I didn’t know then). We had stopped along the way to ask for directions (or to let a particularly heavy spell of monsoon shower pass), and I caught a reflection of the CD lying on the dashboard in the windshield.

Who knew, I would be attending a live concert of hers some 9 years from that day in Amsterdam?

p.p.p.s. I knew I had the picture somewhere but finding it took a lot more effort it should have. Back then, I was terrible at organising my photos. This was the hierarchy under which it was finally found:

Really Old Shit > DColon > images > sorter2 > Shimoga

I am thanking myself of 9 years ago for having the good judgement to name at least the last folder correctly.

p.p.p.p.s. It’ll be gravely remiss of me to leave you without Rosa Branca.