SETTLING INTO REYKJAVIK
Three of us were classmates in Parsons’ MFADT Program: Joe, a love-lorn gamer with a fondness for Trap Music; Alexandra, a petite, half-Chinese and half-Filipino girl whose temper is only matched by her great obsession over Japanese Reality TV shows; and myself, the timid, ever-curious explorer and dog handler. Alex’s husband, Michael (a towering man with a penchant for Super Dry jackets and the Japanese language), accompanied us as we travelled to the small, European nation of Iceland. This group of four would spend the next 6 days traversing the tourist-filled streets of Reykjavik and the frozen, snow-lined fields of The Golden Circle, bleeding out money but taking in the wonders and beauty of an absolutely pristine environment.
Our flight from Newark left a couple hours immediately after my work field trip to the Natural History Museum, and we landed in Keflavík International Airport at 4am the next day (granted, there is a +5-hour time difference between New York and Reykjavik, and the flight was about 6 hours long). When we touched down, we were posed with a small problem: our first Airbnb was located in the heart of Reykjavik but wouldn’t be ready till 3pm Icelandic time. On top of that, any shops or cafes wouldn’t open till 9am, so we spent a few hours at the airport: I tried getting as much sleep I can, Joe had his first taste of Icelandic cuisine at Keflavik’s all-you-can-eat buffet, and the married couple watched a few episodes of “Terrace House,” as they shared a pair of earbuds like two high school sweethearts on the subway (I wondered what communicable diseases they can transmit to one another by sharing headphones).
9am rolled around and we spent $120 on a cab ride from the airport to Reykjavik’s local bus station, where we stored our luggage in one of their lockers. We walked — in the cold, mostly empty streets of Reykjavik — to our first tourist destination: Hallgrímskirkja, a cathedral whose tall tower overlooked all of Reykjavik and into the Atlantic Ocean. Atop the tower, I was fucking freezing, but the view was spectacular. The sleepy city of Reykjavik was beginning to wake up that Friday morning, and the cargo ships in the bay bobbed slightly against a mountainous backdrop. Organ music from inside the cathedral hall began to drift up into the tower, and a steady stream of bushy-eyed tourists began to fill the cobblestone streets.
We struggled through our fatigue as much as we can, but nearly all of us passed out in one of the two cafes we waited at. 3pm rolled around, and with our Airbnb ready, we took a cab back to the bus station to pick up our luggage and another cab to the Airbnb; we were all goddamned tired and didn’t really want to walk anymore. Of course, our well-intended laziness cost us about $15 for a 5 minute trip.
The Airbnb was a small penthouse apartment on a busy street of Reykjavik, right above a coffee shop and a few blocks — in all directions — from several other cafes and bars. The far western balcony had a great view of the sea and Hallgrímskirkja, while the eastern windows overlooked the mountains. The low, arched ceilings gave the apartment a contemporary feel, yet the exposed wooden rafters lent itself to a more European aesthetic. A small nook loft with a bed was located near the front door, but neither the tiny space or the rickety ladder was suitable enough for Joe, Michael, or myself to stay in. I ultimately ended up sleeping on the couch, which was fine since I was next to a window, and I was able to wake up or fall asleep to Iceland’s beautiful landscape. We also had a single bathroom with a washing machine next to the sink and a tub so large, you can probably wash an entire horse in it. Because the hot water was supplied by a local volcanic spring, each time one of us took a shower, the entire Airbnb would smell like sulfur; and here I was thinking that one of kept farting while bathing.
THE AURORA BOREALIS
After settling in, we walked to Kex Hostel where Alex and Michael had prearranged a tour to see the Aurora Borealis. In our bus group, we met and befriended a group of four fellow Brooklyn girls (they even started to follow my dog on Instagram); each of them seemed well-travelled since they talked about their trips to Greece, Morocco, and Vietnam. Our tour guide was a Scottish expatriate named “Holly” but spelled it as “Hawlly”. She definitely made an effort to point that out.
Driving out of the city, Hawlly navigated through lightless, narrow roads that wound around valleys and rocky peaks. The gravel paths were frozen, and I can recall that the tour bus got stuck on two separate occasions. After pressing the acceleration pedal with the sort of determination as an angry dad whose station wagon was stuck in the mud, we continued on to our destination. Reaching the desolate, empty fields of rural Iceland about 45 minutes later, we were surrounded by near-complete darkness — save for the starry night sky and Joe’s cellphone. He was Snapchatting with a lady taxi driver whom he matched with on an online dating app.
The Northern Lights began to gradually appear, and a faint glow illuminated the night sky. They looked like a green-tinted, amorphous blob through the naked eye, but they were more than visible (and magnificent) through a camera with a long exposure. After taking a few pics for a solid hour, Hawlly dropped us off back at the Kex Hostel. Joe’s Snapchat friend picked us up in her taxi and drove us to Reykjavik’s famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. The small, outdoor cart would dress their lamb and beef hot dogs with ketchup, remoulade, chopped onions, and crispy onions; pretty much a fat ass’ (like me) wet dream. It was perhaps the best hot dog I’ve had outside of Chicago, though I’m fairly certain that my cholesterol levels shot up to that of an unhealthy sixty-five year-old’s.
Walking back to our Airbnb, we stopped by 1011, a convenient store chain that sold groceries. A carton of eggs were about 6 US dollars, and a pack of bacon was priced around 12. Yup, our first full day was indeed expensive — namely for food and drink — so we were determined to make our own cheap meals at the Airbnb as much as we can.
The next day the four of us wandered a mile or two to the car rental place, appropriately named SADcars: not only did Alex and Michael accidentally book it the day before (thus we lost an entire rental day), but the Toyota RAV4 was most likely an early 90’s model, had a completely empty tank when we received it, drank gas like a freshman on spring break, one of the passenger doors wouldn’t open, and each time we turned the steering wheel, the entire car would moan like a depressing trombone solo.
THE BLUE LAGOON & HARPA
With the car in our possession, we drove off to The Blue Lagoon, a hot spring that’s just as photogenic as the Aurora Borealis or anywhere else in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon requires you to shower before entering its waters, and there are only three or so stalls in the men’s locker room that are completely private. As a person who’s pretty self-conscious, I didn’t feel too uncomfortable being completely naked with a bunch of other American, European, and Chinese tourists. It also helped that, when changing with a towel wrapped around my waist, that the towel accidentally slipped off. I said “Fuck it” and exposed my bare ass to everyone around me. Oh well.
The average temperature the entire time I was in Iceland was about a freezing 0 degrees Celsius, so it was nice to dip into the hot water of The Blue Lagoon. Steam would rise from the murky, sky blue pool, and the salinity of the water tingled my skin. Our package included a white silica face mask, an algae mask, and one complimentary drink of our choosing, plus access to the their various dry saunas and steam rooms; it felt like a real spa experience save for the crowds of non-Icelandic people wandering around with waterproof iPhone cases. Parts of the lagoon came up to my neck, but they weren’t so deep that I could potentially drown. Alex, on the other hand, was so short and incapable of keeping herself afloat, she piggybacked on Michael; she and I — despite our Pacific Island heritage — just can’t swim.
Later that night, we went to Harpa, the grand, ornately-lit concert hall in Reykjavik. Joe had matched with another girl, a South Korean music student who was apparently playing a show, and he asked Alex, Michael, and I to tag along. In my entire existence of being able to hear, it was perhaps the most boring performance I’ve witnessed: a conductor directed 30 or so music students to play the goddamn triangle, in succession, for 20 minutes. It was just minute after minute of a person ringing a triangle, a cacophony of tiny pieces of metal clanging together with no rhythm or variation. Although I have an appreciation for repetitive music (earlier, Michael and I argued with Alex about 20-minute long instrumentals from Sufjan Stevens), I was so bored that I resorted to playing Pokémon Go for the entire duration of the concert. Hey, at least I can catch a Mr. Mime while in Iceland.
Afterwards, we went back to our Airbnb for one of our homemade meals and to get ready for a night on the town. We ended up meeting Joe’s new musician friend at Lebowski Bar, a club specifically themed for the Coen Brothers’ comedy hit. After a few White Russians, we walked to a bar named Bravo where I drunkenly bought our party of five a round of Brennivín shots. Following a few more drinks and talk of Alex and Michael’s wedding, we hit up the grocery store to stock up on food, and I called it a night.
ICELANDIC FLEA MARKETS AND MUSEUMS
The next day, the four of us devoted the entire day to exploring Reykjavik: our first destination was Kolaportio, the biggest flea market in all of Iceland, located just adjacent to the bay. I managed to buy some Icelandic yarn for my friend Monica, an avid knitter back in New York. Also, for only 500 Krona, I bought a small cup of Hákarl, the rotted shark meat that’s supposed to be a traditional delicacy in Iceland (more on that later). After browsing wool-lined coats handed down from Iceland’s military and a curiously abundant number of “Make America Great Again” hats, our next stop was Hafnarhús, the small contemporary art and design museum next to the flea market.
Hafnarhús is a beautifully built space with that modern, minimalist aesthetic you’d find in European design; think IKEA, but a museum. Though the building itself was large, the exhibitions were sparse and amounted to around 5 different artists showcasing their work. The majority of the exhibitions didn’t interest me, save for a few video installations and an entire wing dedicated to Yoko Ono and her DIY/interactive work: write a message on a wall to your mother, tie a wish to a tree, hammer a nail to wall — the kind of hippy, collective-integration stuff Yoko is known for. She even had a rotary telephone at the entrance of her exhibit, in which she would randomly call; I was tempted to make a long-distance phone call to my parents back in LA, but sadly I couldn’t remember the international dialing code. Yoko did have an incredibly impactful piece where she collected stories of women (from all over world and in different languages) who had been abused and mistreated — verbally, emotionally, or physically — and posted them on a wall. Some of the stories — including one where a father kidnapped a son, exposed him to child porn, and the Virginia court system refused to give the mother custody — were absolutely horrifying.
After the museum we made a trip to Bonus, an affordable grocery store chain whose locations span all over the country. That night, using our recently acquired purchases, I made pasta and baked brownies for Alex, Michael, Joe, and myself. Then came the big moment: we would all try the Hákarl. Opening up the sealed cup, a noticeable smell immediately filled the apartment; though Michael had to retreat to his room because of the stench, I can honestly say I smelled worst things. Tuyo fish and Durian fruit, for instance, have a more offensive aroma. I also own a dog, and she sometimes accidentally shits in the apartment; that, especially when I scoop it up indoors, smells worse.
Of course, we’re talking about rotted shark that’s been fermenting without refrigeration for three months, so it should come as no surprise that it reeks. If you’re too lazy to Wikipedia Hákarl, here’s the deal: the Greenland Shark is apparently very poisonous unless properly prepared. They bury it in the sand to press out all the fluids, and it ferments anywhere between six to twelve weeks. It’s then cut into strips and hung to dry, in an open and unprotected area for a few more months (I saw video of this process during the summer curing period; flies congregated on the carcass). After they remove the brown, rotted exterior, they cut it into cubes and package it.
Alex, Michael, Joe, and I hesitantly stuck the putrid, pink cubes of meat with toothpicks and started a countdown. At “1”, we hastily shoved the Hákarl into our mouths with the sentiment of “Fuck this shit. Let’s get it over with.” There was a definitive moment of absolute silence as we began to chew, and then suddenly Alex sprinted to the garbage can, fell to her knees, and spit it out. This set off an immediate chain reaction where we all ran to the garbage to furiously expel the Hákarl out. As someone who doesn’t like the general taste of fish coupled with the frantic reactions of everyone else, I can’t accurately recall how it tasted. I’ll just say this: the texture was spongey at best, and each chew secreted juices from the meat with this overwhelming fish flavor, followed by an extremely bitter and sour aftertaste.
After chasing the taste of Hákarl with water or Coca-Cola, we cleaned up the place and packed our belongings. The next day we would depart from Reykjavik and drive deep into the natural surroundings of The Golden Circle…