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Kjölur Road June 20-21

One thing that's important about the culture of Iceland is that 80% of the country is considered uninhabitable. Of the inhabitable parts, very few are actually used. Over 60% of the population is in Reykjavik or it's suburbs. The next biggest town after Reykjavik and 2 of it's suburbs is Akureyri which is where I'm living now, with only about 15,000 people. Scattered around Iceland are small villages of only a few hundred people with only a handful of towns larger than 1000 people once you get smaller than Akureyri. Almost all of these towns and villages are on the ocean with a few relatively close by or used as tourist stops.

So when I say that I stayed in the middle of nowhere for a night- I really mean it. Absolutely no one lives in the interior of the country other than a VERY small collection of farmers (and even then, they generally do not live there full time- only long enough to bring the sheep in to shear or butcher) and the employees of Kerlingarfjoll (more on that in a bit).

The Kjölur road is a highland dirt road that goes directly up the center of the country through a Nordic desert, in between two glaciers and many mountain ranges. It only opened for travel the day before we took it which is really telling of both the weather in the area and the condition of the road itself. Most of the vehicles we passed in our bus were 4 wheel drive SUVS- a few lifted even (something I never thought I'd see out of the South!).

It took about 4 hours to get from the start of the road to Kerlingarfjoll and it was some of the most stark and desolate landscapes that I have ever seen. There are miles and miles of gravel with no vegetation whatsoever. The air is so clear that you cannot tell just how far away the glaciers in the distance are. Lucky for us, it was a clear day so we had a perfect view of the mountains and glaciers.

Finally, we get to Kerlingarfjoll. Dave, our director, had kept us in the dark as to what this place was, making the approach down an even worse dirt road, fording a creek, fording a river right next to a waterfall, an emergency gravel landing strip, and insane hills and cliffs even more exciting while waiting to see what was to come.

What we finally ended up at was a ragtag collection of buildings that looked like they belonged in the 1930s Swiss Alps. Kerlingarfjoll used to be a small ski resort in the summer. There are a few cabins- several with kitchens, bathhouse facilities for campers, and a lodge with a restaurant and some bunks. However, in the last few years, the glacier has receded and snow has stopped falling in the summer so the ski pulls have shut down and the place has turned into a backpackers haven. I suppose they are making good of the global warming at least.

All 18 of us were to sleep in the loft of the lodge. The A-frame lodge had 3 stories- the first level which had bathroom and laundry facilities as well as staff areas, the 2nd level which housed a small restaurant (no choice as to the meal though, just whatever they have :P), and the 3rd level which was for us- a few couches and bunkbeds for 18. I wish I had taken a picture of stairs to get up to the loft. They were essentially a ladder, except that half of each step was hollowed out in order to allow it to be steeper. So if you missed your footing, there was no step to step on since it had been hollowed out so your feet could pass through the step to the next one. Confusing, but scary as hell for someone like me who is uneasy about any kind of unorthodox stair. :P



(the mountains and glacier behind the lodge... look a lot smaller in the picture than they were in person)


A few people went off hiking, but my ankle still hurt and there wasn't exactly marked trails, so I didn't feel like going off galavanting into the mountains. I helped cook dinner on two teeny tiny, look-like-they're-going-to-blow-up camp burners in this little building set aside from the lodge. Luckily, we had access to a fridge so dinner (and breakfast!) was skyr, pancakes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then a bunch of us sat around in the "living room" of the loft talking and getting to know each other better.

As it was getting close to bedtime, someone inquired one of the workers as to where the showers are. Turns out, there was no hot water. The water heater was installed incorrectly. And freezing cold glacier water? Not my idea of fun. Since it's so high up in the mountains, the lodge just pumps in water right out of the river for drinking water. Not such a good idea when it comes to bathing though. ;)

The next morning, we all changed into bathing suits and headed further North up the road to Hveravellir (Kve-ra-vet-lir) which is a secluded hot spring with a bathing area. All 18 of us, plus Dave and a random Icelandic guy, got in the pool that was definitely not big enough to hold all of us. It didn't help matters much that it was set far back from anything, so you had to run out in the cold in hiking boots and a towel, and the entire pool crawling with algae. It was relaxing and I felt a bit clean after not having showered at Kerlingarfjoll.

After about an hour of relaxing there, we headed back on the bus up to a hydropower plant. We had to go down this long tunnel in a bus... several people said it reminded them of Indiana Jones. Then, the bus had to BACK OUT of the tunnel which was a good mile long down into the dam. The elevator takes 2 minutes each way and there were too many of us for that to make sense.

From the dam, we drove another 2 hours on the paved ring road (the road that surrounds all of Iceland) to Akureyri to meet our host families and go home with them. But more about that later!

Golden Circle June 20th

Sorry for the long break in between entries. I've been in Akureyri for over a week now and have been in class every day from 9-4, plus my internet at the homestay is a little sketchy and doesn't hold a signal well so not much time for a full update. I'll continue on from where I left off.

We left Solheimar about 9 in the morning for one of the longest days on the trip. Iceland's famous tourist route, the Golden Circle, is a collection of several historical and geologically significant landmarks in an area of southern Iceland. You really can't be a tourist in Iceland without hitting several of the larger stops including Nesjavellir geothermal power plant, Þingvellir National Park, Haukadular, and Gullfoss.

First up on the docket was Nesjavellir. Really, in most cases once you see one power plant of it's particular type (geothermal, hydro, micro hydro so far on this trip), you've seen them all. There is only so much that can be shown in a working power plant as working mechanisms are not visible from the outside of the machine. However, power plants in Iceland- especially geothermal power due to its unique nature- are special. Nesjavellir had a new, modern visitor's center complete with a tour guide and a large observation deck of the plant's interior. Lining the observation deck were posters, mostly in Icelandic, depicting each part and what it does. Each were matched with numbers to their corresponding part in the plant, so it really illustrated the inner workings of the geothermal plant.

And the plant is located on a  fault so it's built to pull apart.


IT'S PULLING APART! THAT CRACK IS THE EURASIAN AND AMERICAN PLATES MOVING APART! SO COOL!

Ok. I'm done.

From there, we drove to
Þingvellir National Park which, beyond just being a gorgeous geological area, it's also the site of the first Viking parliament and the summer home of the Icelandic prime minister Geir Haarde who is a Brandeis alum. There was the clearest spring I have ever seen in my entire life running near where the bus was parked. It must have been about 10 feet deep in places but it was the clearest prism of blues. Too bad it was also freezing or I might have jumped in! We had a guided tour complete with Icelandic storytelling, which is of legendary proportions let me tell you. Only to be tied with Icelandic humor. ;) Basically, we walked down a trail in a fault with high craigy rock walls around us. It looked like the next earthquake could take the whole wall down. This past earthquake didn't do much damage there, but one about 6 years ago tore a whole new fault into the land.

From there we drove to Haukadular valley where Geysir- the origin of our word geyser- and Strokkur are located. Geysir doesn't really spurt anymore, though sometimes adding soap will act as a laxative. I was told this, didn't test it out (but I thought about it...). Strokkur goes off every 5 minutes or so. We watched Strokkur go off a few times until finally it went off twice in a short succession. I questioned if this might be a sign of an impending geothermal event? We left. :P Since there were those earthquakes a few weeks ago (which I missed out on by about a week), we're all very sensitive to the possibility of some other event.

I also got my first legal beer at the gift shop across the street. $6 for a big can of Gull. :P


What was interesting is that when I went to Yellowstone, all of the hot springs and geothermal spots were blocked off by fences, ropes, and signs screaming DANGER! In Iceland, no such luck. There were people wandering around the hot pots like it was nothing. It's actually something I like about about the country- people are given a whole lot more personal responsibility. If a small child falls through the earth because their parents weren't watching them and making sure they stayed on the path, Icelanders wouldn't sue either- it's their own fault. If the same happened in Yellowstone, there would be 15 foot high plexiglass wall and a 5 million dollar settlement. Really at all of the sites in Iceland, it's an "at your own risk" deal. There are no guardrails on the roads (unless it's REALLY bad.... quoting Lukas- "Hey Dave? Do they mark their dead with crosses on the side of the road here?"), no fences around cliffs, and full access to areas that we would never be allowed to get near in the US.

From there, we drove a little farther on to Gullfoss (Goo-tl-foss.. means gold falls). The waterfall is gorgeous and has a perpetual rainbow stretching across it. At one point, there was a proposal to build a hydropower plant on the falls. However, this was protested so deeply by the people of Iceland that the proposal was dropped and the land returned to the state of Iceland. Now it's a small park and tourist stop.




From there, we went on to
Kjölur- a rough dirt road through the uninhabited interior highlands of Iceland- to Karlingerfjoll and Hveravellir (more about those later). ;)


Solheimar

Solheimar might be the coolest place I've ever been. It's a small ecovillage (sort of like a commune without a radical environmentalism permeating the place) of about 100 people with around 40 of them being disabled in some way. It was founded in the 1930s as a home for orphaned children during a flu outbreak but has since become a place for the disabled to live relatively free and productive lives.



The setting is gorgeous. It's up on a hill with hills around it on one side that sort of reminds me of the first scene in The Sound of Music. We are staying in a guesthouse (which is partly how they raise money) with 2 bathrooms, a huge kitchen, a living room, and a really nice sunroom with a great view. Below us live a family with some kids but we never met them.

Also in the "town" is a small gift shop and grocery store (with crazy organic foods like vegan ice cream), an ecofriendly learning center (we were told it's the most ecofriendly building in Iceland), a community dining hall, and houses for all of the people who live here.

Here is a <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpwae_LJYpg&feature=related">link</a> to a video someone made of a panarama of Solheimar. It's much greener now.

They grow all organic vegetables and trees as well as have an educational set of solar panels (the most in Iceland since, after all, there is no sun for several months a year) and wind energy, though they get most of their power on the grid from geothermal energy. Even the toilets are compost toilets, with the wastewater going to a wetlands they created.

Since I know everyone wants to know about Icelandic food...

Day 1: Breakfast (at Keflavik airport)- PEAR SKYR
             Lunch- salad with freshly grown fruits and veggies from the greenhouses (kiwi, tomatoes, avocado, yum), dahl (sort of like split pea soup), and lots of coffee
             Dinner- here we cooked ourselves as a group. Now, 18 people cooking for 18 was a little insane. It was spaghetti in meatballs. Now, I know you're thinking, how do you screw up spaghetti and meatballs? Well, somehow the stove magically turned off so the spaghetti sat in it's cold water until it became slimy. Then we managed to turn the stove back on but REALLY hot so the pasta sauce exploded everywhere. Luckily, everyone was so hungry that no one really cared.

Day 2: Breakfast- muesli, yogurt the consistency of gogurt (there are several kinds of yogurt here), really thick wheat bread, pickled fish spread for the bread (not as bad as it sounds, I swear!), and a bunch of freshly grown veggies
          Lunch- fried fish (soooo incredibly good), the best potatoes I've ever eaten (we don't really know why either.. .but you'd never eat a dry potato on it's own at home.. maybe these potatoes weren't genetically modified but they were sweet and really creamy inside), and salad
            Dinner- brussel sprouts soup (much better than it sounds... EVERYONE actually ate the brussel sprouts and enjoyed them), salad, bread

We've mostly been doing orientation here with a few sessions a day on both the expectations of the program and the beginning of our engineering course. Yes, I said <b>engineering</b>. There are 2 courses for this program- Alternative Energy which is under an engineering subheading and an Icelandic language, culture, and literature class that is generic humanities. Icelandic is one of the most difficult languages in the world (you just never hear of it because there are only 300,000 native speakers) so realistically we won't <i>really</i> understand all too much, but really any effort is really appreciated by the people here. Of course, most speak English but they seem to really like helping people speak their language. It's a pride thing. Knowing a bit of Yiddish helps too because some of the weird consenent blends like "kv" are found in Yiddish.. like kvetching.

One interesting, little known fact about Iceland is that the water smells like sulfur. Not all of the water of course, but the hot water. See.. since the hot water comes from the geothermal springs, you don't drink it or cook with it (it's safe, just not tasty). However, it's still used in the shower. So, when you go to take a warm show, you come out smelling like rotten eggs. Actually though, the smell goes away quickly and it's really good for your skin.

Since the water <i>is</i> geothermal, it can get very hot.. much hotter than even the hottest out of a water heater in the US. Hot water is one of the big *dangers* spelled out during orientation, so we all took lukewarm showers. It doesn't help that we're close to where the epicenter of the big earthquake was and in case of an earthquake, the water can get VERY hot VERY quickly and give pretty serious burns.

So, that's it for Solheimar. The next few days I'll be without internet access. We're going on the famous Golden Circle which is several historical and geological sites. Then we're heading up through central Iceland which is desolated. This county is almost 100 sq. kilometers and only has 300 people... the interior has less and the road JUST opened up yesterday. On Saturday, I'll be in Akureyri in northern Iceland, the 4th largest town at 15,000 people, with my host family so I should be posting more then.

Flight to Iceland and Day 1

My flight from Atlanta to JFK Airport got in at 11 so I sat around for about 5 hours before Icelandair opened their ticket desk. There is only one flight a day from any airport in the US to Iceland and back so there isn't a desk open until around 5PM (for the 8:30PM flight). Around 3:30, a girl sat next to me wrapped up in a huge sweater. Taking that as a sign, I asked her if she was from SIT. Of course of all of the people to meet first, I'd meet the girl who is even more afraid of flying than me. :D We both lamented the flight for awhile but of course were very excited.

At 5:30, the person from the travel agency came to make sure everyone got to the gate and also came around to have us meet each other. Most people on the program flew from JFK with the exception of 3 who made their own arrangements. We spent the next few hours at the gate talking before boarding the plane, where we were all separated.

The plane was packed full but actually rather nice. The food wasn't half bad (I got a vegetarian meal which I figured was safest for airplane food) and we got Icelandic soda, which was exciting for me. I tried to sleep but it was a bit uncomfortable and the woman next to me kept talking to me. She was an environmental engineer so she kept talking about how they need more policy minded people to get the science and technology that we need in place. I napped for about an hour before I heard people gasping and snapping photos. I opened my eyes to it being completely light outside and seeing Greenland below me.





We landed at around 6:30AM Icelandic time (Greenwich Mean Time) or 2:30AM eastern. Getting through immigration was a breeze and we all gathered outside to meet the Academic coordinator who is a pretty cool guy. He lived in Iceland for a year in high school and has been back about a dozen times since and is currently a phD student at UMass for resource economics. Now I have ins. :P

I got money from the ATM since I really didn't have enough US money to trade in. I got 10000 Islandic Krona which is about $128 American. However, apparently the currency ratio was at an all time low yesterday morning before sharply rising up right after I got the money, so I actually got it for much cheaper- all things considered. I'll write about the crazy economic situation in Iceland due to the subprime mortgage criss a little later.

The first thing we did was go to Hellisheiði Power-Plant which is a new geothermal power plant in southern Iceland. Not only does it create electricity from the geothermal steam, it also provides Reykjavik and it's suburbs with hot water and heat (which also comes from the hot water). I found that pretty amazing. Apparently all the power plants in Iceland have very nice visitor's centers (this one was gorgeous) with English speaking tourguides and fancy displays. They are very proud of the fact that there is next to no pollution for their electricity. In addition, this power plant will pay for itself in only 5 years. Considering that there are 40 boreholes of up to 2 miles deep collecting the superheated water and steam, each of which costs $10 million US, in addition to all of the equipment, it's rather crazy. It seems that geothermal is an expensive investment but comes back 10 fold in terms of renewable energy, externalities (such as the hot water- which also cuts down in overall energy use because there are no water heaters or traditional heat in general), pollution free, and just economic benefit for the firm running the plant.



Our orientation is in Solheimar which is about a 2 hour drive East of Reykjavik which I'll talk about later. To get there, we drove through rural Iceland which had gorgeous views that I couldn't accurately capture from the bus. We also stopped at a volcanic crater with all of the other American tourist buses.




Now I am at Solheimar until tomorrow which is really an amazing place. I'll give the full run up on the village and why it's so amazing after dinner and our final session of orientation.

Iceland!



I am in Iceland from June 18th to August 2nd. Right now until tomorrow, I'm in a little ecovillage called Solheimar (welcoming the sun) which is somewhere near the K in Reykjavik on this map. It's a teeny tiny hamlet of about 100 people living a largely sustainable lifestyle. This weekend, we'll be going to Akureyri for about 3 1/2 weeks where I'll be taking classes at the Renewable Energy School and living with a host family. Then we're going to Reykjavik for a week. Then we'll be in Isafjordur which is a small town of about 2000 people. At some point, we'll also be going to Grimsey (which is above the Arctic Circle) and we flew into Keflavik (and got skyrr!).

Just a brief "this is what I'm doing" update. I'll post more about our first day flying in at 6AM (2AM eastern), touring a geothermal electric plant, driving through the country side, and Solheimar later.

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