Sunday, May 4, 2014

It's Not An Adventure Unless Someone Gets Hurt

Downtown Reykjavik

Hello, hello!
While this is the first day I'm posting, it's technically day two of the trip; someone, who may or may not go by Linda, slept most of the day away yesterday. In her defense, she was heavily medicated due to airplane jitters. But, it all worked out because yesterday was the windiest, rainiest day EVER. Anyways... On to the good stuff.

Today we did the Golden Circle Tour with Iceland Horizons (side note: this was the best led, most informative tour I've ever been on, so I totally recommend them when you guys decide to visit Iceland.) "What is The Golden Circle?" you're all wondering. Glad you asked, because I took notes on the tour (yes, I'm that person). Just for you guys. Okay, maybe for me, too...  

Does this look like the face of a horse who would bite someone?

The Golden Circle is a 300 km, roughly 187 mile, loop that contains the three most popular tourist attractions in Iceland: the Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir hot springs, and Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. Because Iceland Horizons operates with a small van instead of a huge tour bus, that means less people, which equals bonus stops! So, on the drive from Reykjavik, we stopped at a local farm to meet a few very feisty Icelandic Horses. Gerda, our tour guide, had permission for us to feed them, which was fabulous until one of the mares tried to bite Mom's finger off. Freya the Icelandic Horse- 1, Mom the first-time world traveler- 0. In all seriousness, Mom's finger looks a little rough, but she's going to be just fine. Feel free to leave her lots of "I'm sorry your finger was bitten by an Icelandic horse messages." I promise this story will be embellished way beyond the original event by the time she makes it home. While we're on the subject of Icelandic Horses, did you know that they have two extra gaits? Most horses can perform three gaits: walk, trot, canter/gallop; the Icelandic Horse has the ability to do the aforementioned along with a tölt and a skeio. These horses were brought to Iceland over 1,000 years ago, along with a group of settlers. They're incredibly easy to train (the Icelanders don't say "break" because the horses are left "semi-wild"), and they have 8 basic coat colors with over 50 variations. No other horse breeds are allowed into the country; this keeps the Icelandic breed un-diluted, and also prevents the spread of animal diseases. In fact, if an Icelandic horse leaves the country for a competition, the horse is never allowed back into the country. For those of you who know horses, I know you're thinking, but, Mariah, those totally look like ponies! To which I'd say, yes, they do, but they're classified as horses! The breed has actually grown smaller and more compact over the past few centuries. This is in order to maintain body heat, because- whoa, Iceland winters are crazy cold! And those extra gaits I mentioned above, it's believed that most horse breeds probably have the same ability, but it has been bred out of them over the centuries as they were trained as cavalry and military horses.
One of the hot springs.

So... Geysir. This was our first stop on the Golden Circle. Geysir is actually the name of the main geyser (as we would call it) at the hot springs. Geysir (meaning to gush) was the first recorded hot spot in the world, and is where the English word geyser originates. Unfortunately, Geysir doesn't erupt regularly, thought this isn't for lack of trying. Before "environmental concerns" became a part of every day vocabulary, Icelanders would try all sorts of crazy stunts to get Geysir to go off- from putting soap into the hot spring, to digging a channel into it. While we were there, we got to see Strokkur erupt, which you can see in the video I posted on Facebook. 

After Geysir we went on to Gulfoss, which means "Golden Falls." It's a pretty steep climb up to the top lookout point; definitely not the place to visit if you don't like treacherous climbs and getting soaked. The falls send up a constant mist, which could easily be mistaken for never-ending rain.

Both Geysir and Gulfoss are within the same area; our last stop- Þingvellir (Thingvellir)- was a forty-five minute drive. On the way there we drove through the beautiful Icelandic highlands, and Gerda told us some interesting information about Iceland. Did you know that Iceland's population is only 320,000 people! Their crime rate is incredibly small, with about two hundred men sharing the only prison facility on the Island. There were two female inmates, whose prison was a two-bedroom apartment, but they were both released last year. 

Þingvellir National Park

Iceland's first settler was from Norway; Icelanders even worshipped the Norse gods (Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya) until 1,000 years ago. The Icelandic language is a derivative of the original Norse, with only Faroese (Faroe Islands) having a purer form. Eventually, Norway and, thus, Iceland, came under rule of Denmark. In 1918, Iceland became a free state. They went on to become one of the founding members of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), and Keflavik airport (where we flew into) was the old NATO air force base. 

Land-wise, Iceland is the "youngest" land in the world. The entire land mass has been formed from the volcanic eruptions that have occurred over the millennia. Speaking of volcanoes, you might find it interesting to note that Iceland is the most volcanic place in the world, with eruptions occurring at least every two years. One of their largest volcanoes is predicted to erupt at any time. The scientific community that monitors the volcanoes predicts the eruption will last at least five months- thus shutting down all travel to and from the country. Icelanders have figured out how to harness all of this geothermal energy, and they use it to heat greenhouses (where they grow plants like bananas), and heat their water and houses. Because there are so many hot spots and volcanoes on the island, it's impossibly for any edible plant life to be grown. All of their fruits and vegetables are imported. Most animals cannot survive the harsh weather, which means almost all of their meat is imported as well- raw meat isn't allowed to be imported, it must be frozen. The only consumable product they produce on their own is dairy. Other than the domestic cows, sheep, and Icelandic horses, Iceland only has five species of mammals: Arctic fox- which is the top of the food chain, mice/rats, mink, rabbits, and reindeer. They have no snakes or frogs, as reptiles and amphibians can't survive the weather; mosquitos, spiders, cockroaches and other insects are also, thankfully, absent. (In other weather-related news, did you know it doesn't thunder and lightening here when it rains- there isn't enough heat to create the proper conditions). 

Þingvellir National Park

Whew, are you sick of reading about Iceland yet? I'm almost done, promise! (At least until tomorrow.) Our final stop was Þingvellir National Park. The park is home to the mid-Atlantic ridge rift valley and the site of where Iceland’s first parliament, also known as the world’s first democracy, was founded. You can actually see the continental drift, which manifests as cracks and faults in the land, between the Eurasian and North American continents- pretty awesome! The Park is also home to Iceland’s largest national lake; it’s supposedly one of the ten best “dives” in the world. The water in the lake is so clear that you can see all the way to the bottom, so divers are warned that they might experience acrophobia (fear of heights).

That’s it from me, for now! Hopefully I didn’t bore you all to death. If I did, don’t tell me. Ha! You know how I am once I get started on my fact-filled rants. Stay tuned for details from tomorrow’s trip to the Snæfellsnes.

Gott kvöld (Good evening),

Not bad, Iceland, not bad.

Random facts of the day:
1)    Icelanders don't have "family names," or what we here in the states would call last names. Children take the first name of their father as their last name, so my last name would be Ricksdottir. Also, when women marry, they keep their "last name" instead of taking their husband's.
2)    Iceland is the second most windy and rainy place, following the Falkland Islands.

3)    The shortest word in Icelandic is river (áin); the longest word is Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúraútidyralyklakippuhringur, you’ll have to look up the meaning for yourself.
4) Icelanders are, truly, the nicest people in the world. We went to the bank to make a withdrawal, and the ATM was broken. A local lady drove us to another bank to get money. She also gave us some tips for Reykjavik and drove us to get bus tickets. I love this place!

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