Iceland! (See more pictures here) We landed Sunday morning bright and early. Except it wasn’t bright. It was 5am, and PITCH dark out. The sun technically came up at 11am, but was pretty dark until 10:45, and not really bright until noon. We started off with a scare at the rental car company. The confirmation that I had saved just had the confirmation number, not the company that we were using – I had booked through a third party site. Thank God for good wifi at the airport, as well as online chat with the company! They said my email had been entered incorrectly, so good thing I had taken a screen shot of the confirmation umber. They provided me the details and we headed off to get the car. While getting the car, the man said that we needed to buy their insurance or confirm that we had insurance. Of course we have car insurance in the US, but he said that wouldn’t count. I had already prepared for this and confirmed that our credit card company would cover the additional insurance (like most do) as long as you don’t accept the rental car company’s additional coverage. So I told him this but he said I had to have proof! I had scanned a copy of the cardholder agreement into Evernote (like I do with most documents that I want to keep), but since it didn’t have a copy of my card scanned with it (it was Brian’s, but doesn’t really matter since it’s the same account…) they said they wouldn’t take it. He said we needed to call the company to get a written letter detailing that we were covered, because Iceland was different and there was hot ash and flying debris with all the crazy wind storms here. That freaked me out a little and concerned me that no matter what we did, we might have to pay for damages to the car, in the case that something wasn’t covered by the credit card company. Thankfully, the man let us use his phone for almost a 25 minute call to the company to get someone from the credit card company to email me a letter. Good thing they had wifi there too! I was glad that I had done my research (actually, did it earlier in the year when we went to Spain and rented a car), as this saved us a lot of money not having to buy their $150 insurance, as I would have done that to be covered, since there was such a high chance of a crack in the windshield or any other issues due to crazy weather there. Thankfully we made it through the couple days without any issues. It confirms my decision that whenever you can rent a car in another country, definitely the best option! The cost of our car was less than the cost of a bus ticket for one of us from the airport to Reykjavik (it’s about a 40 minute ride to the city from the airport).
We got off after that without any issues, and went to visit the Blue Lagoon. Unfortunately, at 9am, it was still SO dark that we couldn’t see anything. We saw little bits of the Northern Lights that day when flying, and then upon driving, but it was pretty faint, so we hunted our whole trip to try to see better versions of it. We had decided to not go in the Blue Lagoon as it was about $80 a person just to swim, and there were other places that we could go in hot springs along the road for free (or so we had heard). Turned out to be good, because we wouldn’t have been able to see or enjoy it at that time. We ended up coming back on our way to the airport to leave Iceland and got to see it then. Definitely beautiful and worth going to see. I was fine that we didn’t go in there though, as there were so many people. It still would have been fun, but I don’t think worth that price.
We headed around the south side of the island on the coast and could see the waves crashing in the darkness onto the shore. We could tell that it was pretty, even though it was dark. The sun is only up for about 4.5 hours during this part of December. I thought it would be dusk for longer, but it really didn’t get light until 10:45am and then got really dark around 4pm. Thankfully, the dawn and dusk hours provided enough extra time for us to to see a lot of the area.
I was pretty tired, as I hadn’t slept well the night before (or the prior 2 months, basically) and was concerned about how I’d do on the trip not feeling great. However, this has been the story of my life for many years, and I can’t just stay inside forever, so we decided to do the trip even if it was hard. I hadn’t slept on the plane at all, so by 10am in Iceland, I was really tired. We took a brief 5 minute rest, and then got out to hike. Let’s just say that the cold woke me up! It’s cold there, but not as cold as I thought. It was about 30F to 40F during our time there. It was miserably cold the first day with the wind, and someone had said it was about 15F with the wind chill. We, the family who had lived in Cuba last winter, were definitely bundled more than others around us! ha! We were freezing! I’ve been wearing a scarf and hat and big jacket in Silicon Valley the past month so it was definitely a cold that I did not really prefer!
Our hike was amazing though. We never would have made it to the hot spring if we had known how far it was (I guess that’s where not quickly converting kilometers into miles in your head when you’re tired can be a good thing). The hike was about 3.3km, which is a little over 2 miles. We thought the hot spring pool was at the top of the hill that we could see. We saw a ranger along the road and at that point probably had already hiked a very steep hill up for 40 minutes. He said it was 20 minutes farther. Phew, we were almost there. We got to the hot springs that were bubbling and there was a river that had signs saying we could swim in! It was only about 1 foot deep, so you could just cover yourself if you laid on down in the river. Getting in and out was brutal, but being in the water was nice! There were only a few other people in the river. It was fun, but a short experience due to the cold. Your face just felt like it was going to freeze off. The water was warm, but not super hot. Maybe about 88-90 degrees. Beautiful area though in Rekyjadalur, which means “Smoke valley”.
We had heard that things were very expensive in Iceland, but so far our experience hadn’t been bad – the tickets for the two of us were about $570 total (for both of us, round trip with a bag, but we got a black friday deal, which is why we went!), and the AirBnBs each night were about $50 (and we only had 3 nights). However, the food was outrageous! For any type of food, it was pretty much $15, even for a tiny a bowl of soup. Think of stadium prices but even in the grocery store! We had heard there was Costco and Ikea, and we were able to get a main dish at Ikea for $8 and a salad for $7. So definitely the best bargain of the town there. Costco had a little higher than the American food prices ($4 for hotdog, $7 for pizza), but the inside grocery part was much more expensive, $24 for a jar of nuts, normally about $12 when we get them. We had brought snacks, but I feared not enough as I was so hungry on the plane, I ate a lot of them (and also purchased a small thing of Pringles for an outrageous price and AFTER eating the whole thing read the ingredients. Did you know they have WHEAT STARCH!?! Omg, seriously, another bad way to start a vacation… Thankfully, I think it wasn’t much that was on them, probably just a dusting, unlike the bag of cookies I ate earlier in the summer. I almost always read labels, but the few times I haven’t recently, it’s done me in!
We went to the grocery store and got some food to make for two of the dinners we would be there. Taco salad generally stays pretty fresh, and is quick and easy to make, so we opted for that when we saw those ingredients. We went back to our first AirBnb and met the older lady hosting us. She was so sweet! Besides other service people, she was really one of the only Icelanders that we got to interact with, which I was a little disappointed by. That was also our experience in Spain…let’s just say, Brian’s not like my dad, who likes to talk to all people on the trip and make new “friends” in every line that we stand in. I thought it was crazy as a kid, but now I get it and appreciate it, as it helps you understand the world better.
I was so tired that night, and worried that I was going to not feel great from the gluten exposure, that I didn’t want to be too adventurous in our first night of eating out. We decided to get Nepalese food, Chicken Tikka Masala. It was really good, but for $35 for a medium sized portion, Brian and I just split it. We weren’t that hungry, since we had gone to Ikea a few hours earlier, so that worked. Afterwards, we tried to go find the Northern Lights, but couldn’t see anything. It was clear, and the glow as supposedly a 3, which was decent, but we couldn’t see it. It was really windy, but nothing to what we experienced the next night. We really wanted to see the lights, so we woke up at 4am and tried to go find a dark spot. We drove pretty far out, in the snow (I always drive in foreign countries, as it’s really hard to get automatic cars (or super expensive), and Brian doesn’t know how to drive a manual car). I hadn’t really driven in snow before, but our trip in Iceland gave me some pretty good “awful weather” training! We brought blankets to sit in the car and just wait for the lights. It wasn’t that clear, and the clouds would come in and out, since it was so windy. Nothing still. We were only out for 2 hours and then went back to bed until noon! We were so tired from our trip and being thrown off on the time (and all the physical exercise I did with hiking – haven’t walked that much in a LONG time) that we hadn’t really planned to do that, but it was pretty dark and rainy the next morning, that it made it hard to get up. I found it really hard to get up at 9am during the time, as it felt like the middle of the night (which it was in CA), but also because it was just so dark. Our host had given us a few good places to see, so we went to the Perlan and got some ice cream (almost got coffee, but the ice cream sounded good, as it was warm inside everywhere!), and then explored downtown Reykjavik (Rày-key-a-vìck). The shops were really cute! I liked the downtown area. Smaller stores, although there were a few high rises. It rained a lot that day, and the wind was pretty strong, so you can’t carry an umbrella. You just wear a jacket and duck in and out of spaces. Thankfully, we were going in and out of shops, and ended up finding some cool souvenirs, so didn’t get too wet. We found a list of best gluten-free restaurants in the area and started trying them out (Himalayan Spice, which used to be called Nepalese Kitchen) was one of them. Definitely the hardest part of traveling, as you have to ask what is in everything. We found out from reading some other places that they put wheat in their sushi rice, and they eat barley and rye bread a lot too. So much bread! We went to a little food truck/shack called Fish & Co in one of the parks/squares in downtown. It was a small bowl of pan-fried cod with spinach and roasted tomatoes under it. 2,000 ISK, which is about $20 USD. Brian and I split it, as we had our taco salad to eat (and it was already 3:30pm), and so it wasn’t much food. But SO good. Very fresh and flavorful. We headed out to the Grotta lighthouse at the end of the city on the peninsula and then on our way got back in horrible traffic. It took us 30 minutes to go 1 mile. Definitely worse than Bay Area or LA. Iceland has about 300,000 people, and probably half of them live in Reykjavik. Not sure why traffic was so bad though. We learned our lesson to not go out around that time! The wind was pretty heavy at that time. We had planned to go make our taco salads, and then drive out another time about an hour outside the city so it would for sure be really dark and we could watch for the Northern Lights. We had the scariest drive of our life, with the wind GUSTING around us. We had a tiny little car too, and I thought we were going to get blown away. Later, we found out that the wind was up to 50 meters/second, which translates into 110MPH winds! I told Brian it felt like we were in a hurricane, and for sure, we definitely were! Wow. I don’t think it was that high when we were driving, but it was very strong, definitely moving our car, so I was driving in the middle of the road to not get blown off (thankfully, there were almost no cars out where we were). We sat for awhile and waited, then moved locations one more time and sat for a few hours. No northern lights!! So sad. We knew that was the best time/day that had been predicted, as it was clear and the rating for it to show up there was decent.
On Tuesday, we visited this neat looking church, Hallgrimskirkja Church, and got some big fries with different dips from Reykjavik Chips in downtown. Yum! That ended up being our lunch, sorta, and then we drove through Thingvellir National Park. Gorgeous. Very different terrain throughout Iceland, some hills and huge mountain/glacier areas, and then some pretty valleys. Since we have been to Yellowstone National Park, which is one of the other famous Geyser national parks, it did seem pretty comparable. We saw their smaller “old faithful” geyser, which goes off every 5 to 10 minutes, called Strokkur Geyser. Tourism in Iceland seems to be pretty new (Wow air has only been going there for a few years), and so there’s a lot of work that they’re doing to make the park area ready for tons of people to come visit. They just had little paths, but were going to be building a raised walkway to keep the area protected in the near future.
At the rest stop, they had a great soup place. I wanted to have soup every day since I was cold all the time! All the 4 soups were gluten-free, and when I commented that I was so happy that they advertised it, the guy brought me out some GF bread too. Tomato basil soup, with pesto in it. Very good. Everything in Iceland was quality, so although it was expensive, the food was very tasty, fresh, organic, and flavorful. It makes you wonder what we’ve lost in the US, due to wanting everything to be cheap. Yes, we can afford more, but you miss out on the amazing flavor of the chicken, and the other ingredients.
We continued on through the park and saw Gulfoss Waterfall, which was beautiful! It’s a double-drop waterfall which tumbles down 32 meters into an ancient canyon. Visiting in the winter, the surroundings are covered in ice, appearing frozen as in awe of the violent water. Really something to see. We headed out of the park toward the town of Sullfoss, which was another cute town on the hunt for some more gluten-free treats along the way. We had heard that there was good cake at Kaffi Krus, and it was amazing. It was a white mousse, chocolate mousse, and a chocolate brownie on the bottom, covered with chocolate ganache. Oh wow. So rich, and so good. Very happy to be able to find a few good gluten-free treats on our trip. We checked into our airbnb, which was in Hella, and was a campground. We didn’t get to see it in daylight, but it would have been really pretty, from the dark view that we could tell. It was a little one-room cabin with a small 2-burner stove, and a mini fridge and sink and bathroom. Great place to stay for the night. Would have been fun in the summer, although it’s only 50 degrees in the summer, so not really lake weather!
There are public pools that are heated with the geothermal water (water from the geyser/volcanos), and so we went there and swam for a little bit. Was fun, and those pools were much warmer, like you’d expect a jacuzzi to be (it looked like a jacuzzi, not like a dirt hole with hot water in it, which was kind of what I was expecting/hoping), but it was drizzling and windy, so we only stayed for a little bit.
Afterwards, we headed to see a beautiful waterfall, one of many that Iceland has. Unfortunately, since we didn’t have many daylight hours, we had to go see some things in the dark, and sometimes we couldn’t see much, or other times, in the case of Seljalandsfoss waterfall, it was lit up, so we could see it, although not as glorious as it would have been in the daytime. There was a path to walk behind the waterfall, so we did that and got a little sprayed! Thankfully, we made it back to the car just as it started to pour again. (The weather changes so quickly!)
On Wednesday, we had to catch our flight, so on the way, we stopped at a geothermal and hydro power plant museum. Hey, we’re nerds. But it was so cool! The museum was so interactive and interesting. Very helpful facts to help understand how they convert the hot water and the streams into electricity. We were there for awhile, and then went to Yellow, an asian bowl curry place and got it to go on our way to the airport. That was really good too. We didn’t eat a whole lot of Icelandic-style food, besides the cod-fish and coffee drinks, as it wasn’t the most conducive to GF, unless you went to a really fancy restaurant, but the food we ate while there was very tasty. We walked through the Blue Lagoon on our way back to the airport, and enjoyed seeing it in the daytime. We were able to turn our car in without any new dings or dents (or crashing the whole thing in the wind!), thankfully. Our flight was about 10 hours back, with a fuel stop in Canada. I saw the ice caps somewhere up high in the north as we flew over and that was a sight I hadn’t seen before (Probably somewhere very north Canda). So neat. A great trip, and we really enjoyed our time in Iceland, with the friendly people we encountered, the great food, and the beautiful scenery. If only it wasn’t so cold (says the woman who was called “SoCal” in college, because I started to put on my hat and scarf once it got to 60 degrees!)…
We both went back to work on Thursday, so talk about a whirlwind trip. We are both glad we went and got to experience it. The rest of the week was really busy too as we had my work Christmas party (which was not very good, due to the location being 3 hours away in traffic!), and a Berkeley IV friends’ Christmas party (which was really fun!). On Saturday morning, I went to celebrate a friend’s birthday by doing some charity work. What a great idea! Apple matches our volunteer work too, so basically, by getting 15 of her friends and family together, she probably donated a few thousand dollars to Project WEHope, which is a homeless shelter and advocacy group in East Palo Alto. I was so excited to do this, as I have always had a tug in my heart to help homeless people, and to help solve the systemic issues we have. Especially in the Bay Area, where normal people can’t afford to live, none-the-less someone who has had some bad luck, or doesn’t have a good job. We learned about the organization, helped them build some shelving units, and set up for their Christmas party. We then stayed to help converse with the guests who were coming and it was wonderful! Always a little awkward initially, just as they were all strangers to us, but I had a great talk with a man and his son, listening to his story, and how hard he worked to ensure that his son could finish high school. They lived in an RV, as a lot of the homeless families do, as he felt like it was more important for the families who had 3 kids to live in the two bedroom low-housing apartments than him and his son. Talk about a generous, bright man. It’s interesting how stereotype break down when you meet real people and talk with them. He was working hard to get the mayor to provide some land so all the families could park their RVs and at least have a safe space to park. It was really neat to see his initiative, and encouraged me also to help see how I can make a difference in this way too (Many people’s view is that the tech companies have greatly contributed (or caused) this), so when he heard I worked at Apple and heard my story too, I think some stereotypes on his end were also broken down. All that to say, I’d love to keep doing more ministry work in East Palo Alto (it’s right across the freeway from us, and Marley, the dog I walk, lives over there). Definitely would like to remove many of the divides and stereotypes that permeates our Silicon Valley.
They were SO sad that we went to Iceland. When we can back, Clemmy was super chatty and cuddly, and Jado, was even more cuddly and chatty than his usual self. They said we can’t ever leave again, and I told them they’d have to be okay with it cause we were leaving in a week again for Christmas. WHAT?! Thankfully, our housemate, and our new cat sitter both refilled their automatic feeder, and they seemed healthy when we returned. Jado didn’t want to leave me for a minute when I came home, so he decided to help with all the laundry from our trip.