Seth Barham Design
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spartan wanderer

Iceland: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Okay, so it’s time to put a bow on Iceland.  In light of earning Lonely Planet’s 2012 Reader’s Choice Award for Best in Travel, I have to admit that it’s been good fodder for this blog.  Iceland is trending everywhere, and for good reason.  It’s absolutely beautiful.  The country itself could be a natural wonder of the world.  When you’re tired of hiking and climbing, the nightlife in Reykjavík is world-class.  And don’t even get me started on the swimming pools.

Just as I did with Sweden long ago, I want to point out the best and worst of Iceland.  Icelanders are extremely proud of their country, something I can relate to as an American.  It’s not hard to offend Americans when talking about the US, even if someone is making an objective point backed up by data.  Sweden has better healthcare than the US.  Okay, well you’re a commie (a few people here are still trying to learn the difference between their basic systems of government).  But anyway, please don’t be offended, Icelanders.  These are simply the musings of an objective third-party.

The Good

Iceland has smaller towns and cities.  I like this because it forces you to explore the country deeply rather than doing typical tourist things like looking at statues in the capital and eating at McDonalds.  It’s not a place for travelers with a small comfort zone.

Iceland reinvented the swimming pool.  You can’t leave Iceland without going to a swimming pool.  No, I’m not referring to the Blue Lagoon.  A real, small-town pool where you must wash in a communal shower before getting in, and trust me, they are serious about that rule.  After a healthy dose of group nudity, you will enjoy some of the best hot tubs (hot pots) ever.  For added effect, go in the winter so you can lounge while it’s snowing with the northern lights on display overhead.

Lamb!  Carnivores rejoice!  While lamb is hard to find and expensive in the US, it’s the norm in Iceland.  There are about 450,000 sheep in Iceland to 300,000 people, so it’s not surprising that you can actually buy lamb cold cuts for your sandwich in the market.  Also, lamb hot dogs.  Why not?

The Bad

Iceland is freakin’ expensive.  This is is true for all of Northern Europe, although my dollar even went further in Sweden.  It used to be worse, Iceland’s epic banking fail of 2008 has humbled their króna a bit.  You can anticipate an $8 price tag for the most mediocre of beers.

The expense and terrain can make it inaccessible to some.  When I asked a friend how much I could expect to spend in Iceland, she replied, “I’m writing a book called How to Live in Iceland on $1000 a Day.”  If you want to really explore Iceland, you WILL have to rent a car with 4-wheel drive, and it’s not cheap.  Honestly, on my budget, I would have never been able to go most places I went as an Iceland Conservation Volunteer.

Pissing contests between Icelanders.  This was quite a common theme throughout my stint as a volunteer.  Get a couple of Icelandic men to do some physical labor together and watch displays of machismo that are ridiculous to watch and potentially dangerous to anyone caught in the crossfire, as my girlfriend full well knows after having a 60 lb rock plopped in her hands during the heat of it all.  Her back is a source of chronic pain to this day.

The Ugly

The uncanny American influence.  Until 2006, the U.S. military had maintained a relatively noticeable presence in Iceland, first as a joint occupation with Britain to prevent a possible German invasion during WWII, and later as a deterrent to the Soviet Union.  After the Cold War ended they did what they do best and just kind of stuck around.  Now there is fast food everywhere, and I’m not talking about the average McDonalds or KFC you would find all over the world.  Every petrol station has one, every town has several; these little encampments of obesity have popped up everywhere and limit Iceland’s culinary potential.  When you see a giant monstrosity we affectionately call RVs on a campsite, check the license plate.  It will be Icelandic.  Go to the grocery store and see how easy it will be for you to find fresh veggies in comparison to candy and other junk.  Maybe there are heaps of different reasons for this, but based on what I’ve seen here and there, I claim an American influence that I don’t like to see when I’m on vacation.

The Awesome

The nature.  Duh.  There is no substitute for Iceland when it comes to natural beauty.  Geologically speaking, it’s the youngest country on earth.  These fresh scars from it’s genesis contain so many diverse realms of beauty that one can never claim to have fully established a norm for Iceland.  It will always surprise you.

Icelandic wool.  The lopapeysa, or Icelandic wool sweater, is part of an Icelander’s identity, and probably one of the most famous souvenirs from Iceland.  The wool from the Icelandic sheep is very special.  They have adapted and evolved to cope with the harsh climate over the past thousand years, resulting in very warm, naturally water-repellent wool.  The sweaters, hats, mittens, and yes, even beer-holders made from this wool are natural barriers to the elements as well as trendy.

Mixed Bag

Icelandic pride.  Icelanders love Iceland.  I don’t blame them; they stuck it out through hundreds of years of brutal weather, a single cataclysmic eruption that killed a fourth of the population, and a few famines and plagues.  They came out on top of it all through shear hardiness and stubbornness, without much help from anyone.  They want to show you all of the traditions that carried them to where they are now.  They want to take you on hike after hike and show you everything there is to be shown.  All of this is well and good, until their narrative of Iceland does not welcome criticism nor the possible superiority of some countries in certain areas, or even foreign products.  Icelandic water: best water on earth!  Icelandic music: best music on earth!  Icelandic sheep shit: best shit on earth (actual example)!  So many moments like these materialized out the most mundane situations that it became a running joke between my girlfriend and I.

Concluding thoughts…

Iceland is certainly a unique place to visit.  In Reykjavík you will see the first-world Nordic nation with national healthcare, but venture further and you will find a volatile wilderness that remains largely untouched and untamed.  Both the nature and the people who have persevered to live along side of it in relative harmony - no small task - are sure to create lasting memories that will have a beckoning effect on you.  In other words, don’t plan on going to Iceland once.

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