Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 ... The Year of ...

I took my first real international trip this year (apologies to Toronto and Nogales, MX) to Reykjavik, Iceland in 2010. It was amazing. I ate amazing food, saw jaw-droppingly beautiful sights and met some amazing people (and became a regular at a bar in less than a week). But as amazing as that experience was, 2010 was NOT the year of travel.

It was the year of food/drink.

During the past year I had the distinct pleasure of eating three of the Top 5 restaurant meals in my life, along with some other Top 20 dining experiences (particularly thanks to the last week of the year). While in Reykjavik I enjoyed amazing meals at Silfur and Fiskfelagid, grilled monkfish and salted cod. And I was able to close 2010 with the best Mexican meal of my life and I also discovered the best beer experience I could ever have imagined.

The closer this year was Red O, which I would say is a must-eat for anyone visiting L.A. who has even the slightest inkling for amazing Mexican food. Acclaimed chef Rick Bayless, who won Top Chef Masters season 1, created the menu and two of the chefs from his extremely successful Frontera Grill in Chicago, are head chef and sous chef (or at least they were when it opened a few months ago. I don't know if they still are).

Red O opened this summer to rave reviews from the L.A. Times despite imperfect service. One of the things reviewer S. Irene Virbila mentioned in her review, which ran in August, was that the restaurant was so in-demand that reservations for weekend nights needed to be made at least a month in advance and otherwise still often left people settling for 6 to 10 p.m. My end of 2010 dinner, which I hope becomes an annual tradition with L.A. Youth alums Guianna and Stephanie, was the same. When I called six days in advance I could choose between 6:15 or 10 p.m. (I opted for the earlier.)

Super short review: THE FOOD WAS AWESOME.

We got there at 6:15 and were greeted by a very friendly hostess—apparently things have improved since the LAT reviewed the restaurant. Given that it was so early the restaurant was only about 1/4 full. The crowd spanned a range of ages and races even in the high-end restaurant West Hollywood locale.

Despite the high-prices and high-end, fine-dining classification our server was very friendly and immediately asked whether we'd been there before. Perhaps most importantly, when we said "no" he didn't change his friendly demeanor.

We started with with freshly made guacamole with warm chips and salsa ($9), which was amazing. Very simple and clean, obold flavors. Unlike many other restaurants that offer "free chips and salsa" these weren't oily and well-worth the price. The guacamole was sooooo fresh and chunky that it stood out. As someone who loves avocado almost by default, creating memorable guacamole was an accomplishment.

We then had some sopes, which are silver-dollar-pancake-ish sized circular masa (corn) cakes topped with three choices. We ordered the sopes with plantains, thick cream and fresh cheese. UM, WOW. A contrast of corn texture and earthy taste with the sweet cream and just sharp enough cheese. These are a MUST EAT.

I also had the Topolo Margarita, which was made with Sauza Commemorativo tequila, Gran Torres orange liquer and homemade fresh-squeezed limonada. WOW. I had it "up," meaning no rocks, with salt. It was sooooo smooth unlike most margaritas, which need to be served on the rocks so the water dilutes the nearly pungent tequila taste. Btw, the place has a literal glass-cabinet lined hallway of high-end tequilas in the middle of the dining room. We didn't explore the tequilas since G was fighting off a cold and I was driving. But it was so tempting. Next time!

For dinner I had debated between the Pollo en Mole Poblano, which is my standard Mex restaurant order (chicken with mole sauce), and Chilpachole, which is according to the menu "velvety seafood broth with chipotle and epazote, Mazatlan shrimp, Viking village scallops, Carlsbad mussels, striped bass, roasted potatoes and chayote.

Since I always order the Pollo en Mole, I decide to step out and go for the seafood. SUCH A GOOD DECISION.

Chilpachole is basically a generous-sized vessel of all those super fresh ingredients submerged in a zesty seafood broth. It was so rich in seafood taste that when I shared potato chunk Steph wasn't sure whether it was seafood or potato, because the potato was so infused with seafoodyness. The pieces of shrimp were huge and there were like five of them, along with four scallops, cubes of bass and like half a dozen mussels. On the menu this is listed under "Mexico's Celebrated Seven," which for Bayless means one of the seven regional specialties that he has mastered.

Each piece of fish was succulent and just overloaded with the complex flavors of the seafood broth. I don't mean to sound like a pretentious foodie, but it was the perfect marriage of flavor and texture.

Soooooo soooooo sooooooo sooooo good.

One of the things I love about fine dining is that the portion sizes are just enough to make you feel borderline full after the app and entree but leave enough room for dessert. AND THANK GAWD FOR THAT.

We each felt the compulsion to order a dessert. I got the Mexican chocolate brownie tart with gooey meringue, graham cracker crust and blackberry sauce. Gui got the goat cheese cheesecake with Mexican root beer sauce and caramel corn and Steph got the three sorbets, cantaloupe, strawberry and vanilla. They were all fantastic, but Gui and I ended up trading the second halves of our desserts as we realized the other had ordered what we had preferred. But they all were awesome. They felt decadent without being cloyingly sweet. Rich in flavor but also with contrasting textures (save for the sorbet which is obvi just cold and creamy).

Since eating there people have asked what I liked so much about it and I found myself paraphrasing Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio and saying essentially that the food isn't complicated, it just tastes fucking awesome. Repeatedly, throughout the TC seasons, the judges have said that even if you cook something simple, if you make it he best-X-you've-ever-tasted that's the most important. And that's what we all felt.

Steph ordered albondigas, which are beef and pork meatballs with smoky chipotle tomatoes and caramelized onions and Yukon gold potatoes, and noted that she thought her mom might even be convinced that they were worth the high cost, which initially had her mom thinking we were crazy to be going out for.

The great thing about this last week of 2010 is that though Red O was the highpoint, I had two other great meals to close the week after that. Oxnard (of all places) is home to a new solid classy restaurant and bar called Sugarbeets. And finally, Nem Huong Ninh Hoa (a Vietnamese restaurant in Rosemead in the San Gabriel Valley east of L.A.) that despite not serving pho or bahn mi, made the BEST Vietnamese meal of my life.

It was lemongrass-flavored grilled chicken served on broken rice. It was the juiciest chicken that still had a great slightly crispy surface. MMMMMMMMMMMM.

So what I've learned is that good food has made some of my best memories of 2010. I want 2011 to be even better.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book reviews for philosophy majors | Do we characterize certain people as victims of violence?

When I speak in classrooms for career days or about being a reporter, I usually get asked what I studied in college, which in my case was philosophy (as an undergrad). As a philosophy major, I always have trouble explaining what that means, particularly to middle school students. I say things like "thinking about thinking" and "we try to ask and understand the big questions, like what is meaning? how do we prove existence? what is moral?" But that doesn't always engage them and I'm loathe to go any deeper than that, because I wasn't brought in to discuss philosophy. Also, as is my tendency, I usually end my description with a joke about it not being ancient Greece and thus the job market isn't very good for philosophers.

But after reading this review of Judith Butler's book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? I think I'll have a better answer to give. In short, the review in Utne says ... Philosopher and Utne Visionary Judith Butler argues that we think of certain people as natural victims of violence. (That was the Tweet about the review.)

FROM THE REVIEW: Judith Butler’s trenchant and brilliant book is all about this kind of “frame,” an image or a discussion that allows us to think of certain people as natural victims of violence. Her work suggests that by defining people as residents of war zones, we have, so to speak, zoned them for war. We don’t grieve their deaths, and the call for nonviolence is shouted down because we haven’t recognized their lives as fully livable.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I think I'm just an angry person

I was going to blog last week after having a couple great experiences at two favorite Los Angeles restaurants. Then I was going to blog Sunday after discussing those experiences with a friend and in that conversation seeing the common thread that unified the experiences into a focused blog post. But what has brought me back blogging today? GETTING PISSED OFF.

My parents (I think my father specifically) pointed out when we bought my Saturn in 1997 that Saturn had the highest profit margin of any car company on its sales—a consequence of the company's no-haggle policy. I responded that that didn't "bother me" because someone has to and also, I liked the people at the dealership. There was a legit emphasis on customer service: no pressure, extremely friendly, very patient and always honest (as much as car dealers can be).

I loved my first Saturn (1994 SL1). I drove it to 168,000 miles, on dozens of roadies, including a cross-country one. I loved it so much I bought a second one when the first one started dying. (To be honest, though, I had planned to save for a Prius, but the first one died before I had the cash saved for one.) The 2002 SL2 hasn't been nearly as reliable a car and sadly, got me thinking that my next car wouldn't be a Saturn. But at the same time, I loved the peeps at the dealership so I never would have bought a new car without at least giving them a shot.

But then Saturn died as a company last year. And though they promised they'd stick around as a service shop, Saturn of Torrance (ne, the Torrace Auto Center) disappeared. I was worried. I knew I was paying more at a dealer for oil changes and repairs, but I legitimately trusted the service consultants and mechanics not to hose me. And though appointments sometimes took a long time, they always kept me updated, apologized for delays, answered questions I had about any work they were performing and were super upfront with all costs and required signatures on all services and changes to work orders.

This brings me to this blog post's buried lead.

Oil change and tire rotation took five-and-a-half hours. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?

Several months after Saturn closed, I received a post card from Martin Automotive saying that they were welcoming the marooned Saturn customers. Of course the first sign auspicious sign, this happened to be just after I got an oil change at Jiffy Lube while waiting for someone connected to GM to point me toward a new service center.

Last Monday, four-plus months since my previous oil change, I called Martin to make an oil change appointment. "You don't need an appointment. Just come in. We have 75 repair bays," was what the receptionist told me. I go online and make a 10:30 appointment anyway, but never get any email confirmation or even a "thank you for making an appointment" message on the screen after hitting "submit" that I actually made one. Ironically, I got an email from GM asking me to rate the online appointment scheduler.

I showed up today at 11 a.m. (30 minutes late, but no matter because there was no appointment scheduled anyway, although my contact information was on the computer) and it was BUSY. Virtually all 75 bays looked occupied.

Randy takes my info and I tell him I want just an oil change and of course top off the fluids, and perform the however-many-point inspection. He never says how much it'll cost, though I see on his computer that it's $50 (are you fucking kidding me?) and that my car will be ready at 1 p.m. (um, this is just an oil change right?). He never mentions that to me either. Whatever, they've got Wi-Fi, I've got my laptop, a magazine and a book. So I'll miss the 1 p.m. showing of Catfish, but I can do the grocery shopping after the car appointment and catch the later afternoon show.

1 p.m. No word on my car.
1:15 p.m. I use the word "calcifying" to describe my waiting for an oil change.
1:19 p.m. Randy comes out and brings the list of other things. I should rotate my tires, replace my fuel filter, get new wiper blades and further look at the power steering. I say go ahead with the tires and the fuel filter, pass on the blades (I like in SoCal) and ask what's wrong with the power steering.

"I'm not sure," about that.

ARE? YOU? FUCKING? KIDDING? ME? Why the fuck are you coming to me recommending a repair that you cannot explain. He says that he'll look into it.

Between 1:22 p.m. and 1:50 p.m. I tweet and IM and email a series of emails expressing my frustration, which is transmuting to anger and then Cosby-show style madness.

1:50ish p.m. Randy calls and says that they were recommending replacing the power steering fluid, but that if I wasn't noticing any steering problems it probably wasn't vital. I definitely pass. Btw, no cost was given to me on that.

2:30 p.m. Get a call on my cell from someone in the repair shop, since my consultant is on lunch. (At least someone gets lunch.) They're trying to rotate and balance my tires but they had to call because they needed to ask me where the "wheel lock" is. Saturn NEVER gave me one when I got my car. So at the Saturn dealer they would always ask and then remember when I reminded them and get the wheels off without a problem. The guys here said they would try to figure something out and then asked whether I'd want the wheellocks replaced with standard lug nuts so if I ever had tire problems while driving I'd have nuts that any AAA person could remove no problem. I said yes. I wonder how much those will cost me. Had to share that nugget in the interest of fairness.

4 p.m. Randy tells me that they're still stocking their inventory of Saturn parts so they don't have the new fuel filter and will have to order it. This means of course that I'll have to come back and have them do it. Based on the, they started this and I don't know who might have parts for a dead car company, I agree to have them do it. So even though I had resolved that this was my last time using Martin Automotive Group, I will be back one more time.

4:25 p.m. I'm waiting to pay at the service cashier desk and notice that this service department has won company awards for service and has posted letters from customers praising the consultants and mechanics. I feel like I'm in a Twilight Zone episode, because this was not the place I went to. Five-and-a-half hours for an oil change and tire rotation that cost me about $150 just for those two things and not being apologized to for glacial pace or for not keeping me updated or for not ever actually disclosing costs.

So circumstances are forcing me to take another step into my adulthood and find an independent mechanic on my own.

Later this week I shall write the good blog post about how I have fallen deeper in love with L.A.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hot night, chill music

To anyone who has ever met me or even been in spacetime with me here's an apology ... If I've ever come across as someone who feels like he is the smartest person in the room and wants everyone else to know that a GIANT FUCKING "I'M SORRY."

I've recently come across a few people who radiated that vibe in a supernova way. They were all young (in high school) and I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt that they had no idea. I'm quite sure that I was the exact same way in high school, in fact. So this apology goes out to my teachers and fellow Sweet Home Panthers classes of 1992-1996 the mostest.

Here's a great music sampler to try to help balance the metaphorical karmic scales (as an atheist I can't sincerely believe in karma). I deleted it today (1.12.2011) because it was starting to annoy me every time I went to my blog page.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A sentence I NEVER imagined writing about an idea I thought was impossible

This is the most depressing story I've read in a while. As the U.S. media gets overobsessed with celebrities, sports and the inconsequential minutiae of politics, members of the news media in Mexico literally fear for their lives. It's so dangerous that I'm about to type something I'd never imagined I'd think ... Even in censorship these reporters work honorably.

Under threat from Mexican drug cartels, reporters go silent

A new word has been written into the lexicon of Mexico's drug war: narco-censorship.

It's when reporters and editors, out of fear or caution, are forced to write what the traffickers want them to write, or to simply refrain from publishing the whole truth in a country where members of the press have been intimidated, kidnapped and killed.

That big shootout the other day near a Reynosa shopping mall? Convoys of gunmen whizzed through the streets and fired on each other for hours, paralyzing the city. But you won't read about it here in this border city.

Those recent battles between the army and cartel henchmen in Ciudad Juarez? Soldiers engaged "armed civilians," newspapers told their readers.

As the drug war scales new heights of savagery, one of the devastating byproducts of the carnage is the drug traffickers' chilling ability to co-opt underpaid and under-protected journalists — who are haunted by the knowledge that they are failing in their journalistic mission of informing society.

"You love journalism, you love the pursuit of truth, you love to perform a civic service and inform your community. But you love your life more," said an editor here in Reynosa, in Tamaulipas state, who, like most journalists interviewed, did not want to be named for fear of antagonizing the cartels.

"We don't like the silence. But it's survival."

An estimated 30 reporters have been killed or have disappeared since President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led offensive against powerful drug cartels in December 2006, making Mexico one of the deadliest countries for journalists in the world.

For the rest click here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

My enthusiastic embrace of Twitter has kept me from blogging. But this time, I needed way more than 140 characters to promote one of the most important pieces of journalism I've seen in years.

Before you click on the link below, you should know that the cover image of the latest Time magazine (or perhaps the next issue) is disturbing. It's a close up the face of an 18-year-old Afghan girl who has had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban because she fled her abusive in-laws.

The bulk of the email is Time managing editor Richard Stengel explaining the magazine's decision to publish the photo. I'll excerpt briefly what he says:

Our cover image this week is powerful, shocking and disturbing. It is a portrait of Aisha, a shy 18-year-old Afghan woman who was sentenced by a Taliban commander to have her nose and ears cut off for fleeing her abusive in-laws. Aisha posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years. Her picture is accompanied by a powerful story by our own Aryn Baker on how Afghan women have embraced the freedoms that have come from the defeat of the Taliban — and how they fear a Taliban revival. (See pictures of Afghan women and the return of the Taliban.)

I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME. First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha's safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. ...
I'm acutely aware that this image will be seen by children, who will undoubtedly find it distressing. We have consulted with a number of child psychologists about its potential impact. ... I showed it to my two young sons, 9 and 12, who both immediately felt sorry for Aisha and asked why anyone would have done such harm to her. I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image's impact. (Comment on this cover.)

But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it.

I applaud Time magazine for this. This is the best of what journalism should be doing every day. It's time we stopped using our assumptions and bias-selected media sources to dictate our arguments for our positions. We're not going to solve anything until we deal in facts.

Read more here.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Monday, July 05, 2010

Courage and love

Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke recently marched in a gay Pride Parade in Toronto to keep a promise he made to his son Brendan, who died in a car accident in February. Brendan had come out publicly as gay two months prior in an ESPN The Magazine article. Here's how National Post columnist Bruce Arthur described the promise ...

This wasn't Brian Burke's first visit to this celebration of tolerance. The year before, eight months after Brendan's revelation of his sexuality, Burke had flown his son to Toronto and taken Brendan to the parade.

It's easy to say you accept a gay son. It's different, in a town where you are very recognizable, to take your gay son to the Pride Parade. And as they watched the rainbow kaleidoscope of people spin by that day, Brian Burke made a promise.

"He said, 'I really appreciate you coming out,'" says Burke, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. "I said, 'Well, next year we'll march in it.'"

This story by Arthur made me cry (shocking, right?) but more importantly it's the most important thing that I've read in a while and quite inspiring.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Under pressure?

When Twitter debuted I said that it was the vehicle of the narcissist. Who cared about meaningless blurps of "just had a great meal" or other randomassity that people bitched about with Facebook status updates? A month ago I U-turned and got a Twitter account. I use it primarily to get great reading recommendations from Roger Ebert and other great writers, sports nuggets from the likes of Bill Simmons, entertainment info some EW writers and music thoughts from Ann Powers and Robert Hilburn. At it's best, Twitter feels like the user-driven/chosen active web curation service that so many of us claim to want.

But I've also been seduced by some of the slightly more narcissistic indulgences. I have already Tweeted 191 times and given that I barely tweeted (F-U nytimes) while in Iceland, I am averaging about nine tweets per day. The NBA finals proved to be a big-time Tweet fest. I pass along great or provocative articles, occasionally funny observations and every once in a while communicate with my few friends who are on Twitter.

The other aspect of Twitter that feeds my self-centered appetite is counting my followers. Sadly (?) after a month I have 28 followers. I've done nothing to try to get followers; prior to this blog post I've only mentioned the account a few times and I haven't added it to my e-mail signature. And I don't follow someone just because they follow me, which has cost me some followers, based on how much my count fluctuates day-to-day. It's not that I am against following people who I discover are following me, but I read a person's Tweets first and evaluate whether they are worth following.

Today I gained my first "celebrity" follower, though I doubt L.A. Times pop music critic Ann Powers would call herself a celebrity. No reporter I've ever met would be comfortable referring to herself as a "celebrity." Doing so would violate one of the most fundamental tenets of being a reporter—you are not the story. But I digress, now that a writer who I deeply admire for her incredibly insightful ideas about music and her ability to express them in ways that have me saying, "that's what I was thinking but couldn't come up with," I feel pressured to Tweet more intelligently particularly about music. By the same token, I think that I should be blogging more about music. So hopefully I will be.

A someone whose writing is virtually only this blog, I think that feeling the self-applied pressure of trying to not suck in front of someone (even at just 140 characters), should be a good thing for me. And that's no disrespect intended to my writer friends who read this blog.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Iceland: Final 411, The journey home and The aftermath

First here's the photo gallery.

Emptying the notebook of Icelandic info:

• There are 90,000 horses in Iceland, according to one tour guide. There are 110,000-120,000 horses according to another. Horses cannot return to Iceland once they leave and neither can their equipment or even a saddle. Icelandic horses, which are small, have been so genetically isolated for hundreds of years that they cannot risk any "contamination."

• There are between 500,000 and 600,000 sheep. The worst thing you can be called in Iceland is a "sheep stealer." It's so bad in Icelandic that our guide didn't even say the Icelandic word. This is because back in the Viking days, sheep were a family's sustenance (clothes and food). So if you killed/stole a sheep you fucked an entire family, hence why that was death penaltyable or exile.

• Volcanoes erupt every four years on average, so I'll have another chance to see an erupting volcano in Iceland. I need to time my return trip around one. And I WILL DEFINITELY BE BACK.

• Half of Icelandic women are genetically linked to Irish/Scottish women because of old Viking days. Vikings stopped in IRL/SCOT on way to Iceland and pillaged and murdered men and then brought women to Iceland. Hence why you see some Icelandic redheads.

• Swimming is the favourite physical activity of most Icelanders. They love it. There are public pools all over Reykjavik.

• In Reykjavik people get the day off in the summer if it's 25 degrees centigrade.

• If you want to get noticed as a Californian wear an Amoeba Music hoodie. I got recognized by three Californians in 15 minutes while wearing one Saturday night in a bookstore. I had to explain myself to the person I was with.


The journey back to the States:

Shortly after getting to Keflavik Airport I see a sign promoting that Keflavik was voted Europe's number one airport in 2009. As someone in dire need of nail clippers to declaw myself I would say that ranking is crap. No place sold nail clippers, but I had my choice of several places selling Topas or Opal (the cough-medicine-tasting Icelandic liquers).

Oh well, once we board the plane (already running a few minutes behind) we end up sitting on the tarmac. After noticing we're 30 minutes behind, guy behind me says that he's getting a little nervous because he's got someone planning to pick him up in Seattle and no way to tell them that we're going to be late.

"We'll be fine," I offer reassuringly. "We'll make up the time in the air. They do that all the time."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, no. I am just a passenger, but I'm not crazy, right?" as I look to other passengers to nod in agreement. They do.

We soon learn that we're late taking off, because we're waiting for someone connecting from Europe. That person's plane landed in Iceland late and since this is the last flight to Seattle for another 24 hours, Iceland Air opted to wait for said passenger. There are some groans, but mostly I feel like this is a cool thing, trying to imagine what if that were me.

Eventually we get off the ground 45 minutes late. Fortunately on this flight my in-seat entertainment system works so I watch two episodes of Pressa (an Icelandic television show about a tabloid newspaper that actually treats reporters intelligently). I also monitor the plane's progress on any of the half-dozen maps that allow me to do that. I notice that the one noting our time to destination never seems to indicate that we're doing anything to make up even a minute of our late departure and the flight crew hasn't said anything about that either. Suddenly I wish I was on an American airline.

At 6:30 p.m. PDT we land in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac). My 105-minute layover, which allowed for plenty of time through Customs and perhaps a bathroom break and quick snack, is now just 60 minutes. And I'm in the second last row of a plane full of people who totally ignored the flight attendants' request to let passengers with tight layovers (me) go first. But after spending nearly eight hours in a flying tin can, I can't even begrudge those people.

6:42 p.m. I finally disembark. I now have 48 minutes to go through Customs, have my bag checked again, check my bag in again, go through security again and figure out where in the hell or Sea-Tac I'm supposed to go to catch my flight to L.A. I notice that my flight is of course ON TIME.

6:46 p.m. Customs Cattle Call. "If you have a U.S. or Canadian passport and are a citizen of either country please go to 'area 4.' Everyone else please go to areas 1, 2 or 3." Area 4 has as many people as areas 1 and 2 combined. I cannot even get into the official bank-style, velvet-roped line of Area 4, and neither can another two dozen people also overflowing from the Area 4 waiting area.

6:48 p.m. I am going to miss my flight. Oh well, at least I have a laptop and a phone and my friend Derek in Seattle, who I can try to call.

6:49 p.m. WHOOOOOOO! They open up Area 5 for U.S. and Canadian citizens and those of queuing up outside of the official Area 4 waiting line are now at the front of the Area 5 line. Perhaps I'll make it?

6:55 p.m. (35 minutes until departure). I am next in line to go through passport check. Meanwhile, three people have been pulled out of our line because they're "residents" not "citizens" and need to be walk to areas 1, 2 or 3. So here's the set up. The passport check stations are like bank tellers. There's a five-foot wide lane we're supposed to wait behind until called before we approach the agent, just like a bank. The person with the customs agent finishes just as the three "residents" start walking out of the Area 5 line. "Go, you're next!" a woman a few people behind me in line agitatedly instructs me. I wait because if I stepped forward at this point, I literally would have walked into the people leaving Area 5. "You're next. Go. Now. Move," most-impatient-woman-in-the-world says.

"I'm not going to be an ass," I say loudly enough for all of the people waiting in the Area 5 line to hear. I approach the passport check Customs agent.

6:56 p.m. "Everything OK?" he asks.

"Yeah, we're all just a little testy'" I reply.

"That's my job all day," he says and smiles with recognition, "dealing with testy passengers." He verifies my trip and passport and I'm done. It's now 6:58 p.m.

6:58 p.m. As I'm walking down the stairs I notice that my bag is coming out of the baggage claim conveyor. I grab it without breaking stride and head to the line to declare my purchases and once again verify the details of my trip and show my passport and Customs form.

6:59 p.m. They're asking me the standard questions, how long was your trip? What were you doing? yaddayaddayadda. The Customs agent scribbles on my Customs form. This has not happened to other people, by my observation. "Sir, you need to walk over there." He's pointing about 50 feet in front of me to an empty line and a lone Customs agent standing at a table. I walk over. This isn't good considering my flight leaves in 30 minutes and I'm not expecting them to wait for me, like we did in Iceland.

7:01 p.m. "Sir, you've been randomly selected for a manual baggage screening. That's why there's this mark on your Customs form. Do you know what this means?"

Now, I know the most basic rule of going through Border/Customs stuff. Don't fuck around. But at the same time ... the stand I've been standing in is turning into quicksand. "Yeah, it means I'm going to miss my flight," I say with the what I hope is the right balance of nervous urgency and resigned humor and a smile.

Agent Patrick gets it. "Let's hope not. It's 7 now. When is your flight?"


"It's not gonna take me that long. You got good shoes on?"

"Yeah, I'm wearing sneakers."

"OK, I'll try to make this as painless as possible."

Agent Patrick is great. When he asks if I want to amend my Customs form with anything I may have forgotten I mention that I forgot a pair of gloves. "I'm not that anal," he says. Basically, $10,000 is the threshold for Customs attention. "I don't think I have $10,000 to my name," I say only half-jokingly.

Theoretically, he has the legal power to take literally everything out of my bag and ask about it. He doesn't do this, obviously. When he comes across my plastic bag filled with my dirty laundry he asks about it and when I tell him what it is, he's cool. He unzips all the pockets, sifts through the folds of shirts and stuff and about 10 minutes later we're finished. I have hope.

7:11 p.m. I take my bag and hand it to the baggage transfer people who take bags from transferring international travelers. Hooray for not having to go through any standard baggage check-ins.

7:13 p.m. I am standing in a security line. Again, it's just for international passengers transferring to other planes. I de-belt, take out the laptop, remove shoes and throw everything with metal into my carryon.

7:18 p.m. I am through security and have shoes back on. I figure out where I need to go (Gate D6) to catch my flight which leaves in 12 minutes and is still on time.

7:19 p.m. I find the train I need to catch.

7:21 p.m. I find the second train I need to catch.

7:23 p.m. A flight attendant is standing on the escalator up. It's super narrow. I choose the stairs. I start jogging up the first flight, which is the equivalent of four flights of stairs in an office building. I easliy beat flight attendant up to the platform mid-stairs and take the escalator now running.

7:25 p.m. "All passengers for Alaska Airlines flight 481 to Los Angeles should be boarding now." I'm running now. Not jogging. Running. My shirt is stuck to my back with sweat and I can feel beads forming on my forehead.

7:28 p.m. I'm at gate D2 "Final boarding for Flight 481 to Los Angeles." I sprint.

7:29 p.m. I arrive at D6 and see the last few passengers turning in their boarding passes to the gate agent. Whew. Of course once I get on the jetway, I'm just standing there for five minutes. Needless sprint. :(

After watching two passengers get really pissed at each other about overhead compartment space (one guy wants to put his duffel bag up there but business traveler guy doesn't want his carryon with his suit getting wrinkled. ultimately they each remove the other's guys stuff until a flight attendant deals with it), I sit down. I immediately apologize for smelling. My rowmates are totally cool.

9:40 p.m. I am at baggage claim but my bag isn't. It turns out that those of us coming from Reykjavik were faster than the luggage transfer people and our bags didn't make it with us, but will instead be on the first flight out of Seattle in the morning.


Since returning, I've been beyond tired but super happy. The trip was worth every penny (of which it totaled betwen $3k and $4k).

I've had to stop myself from saying "takk" when wanting to thank people.

And I've been evangelizing Iceland to friends. If you want a great vacation with the perfect balance of city and wondrous nature, Iceland is a no-brainer. And no country could be more grateful that you're there.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Day 7: Reykjavik

On my last day, I've got until just after lunch I need to catch the shuttle to Keflavik Airport. I hope to soak up the city one last time before I leave. Of course, it's sunnier this day than any since I've been there. The night before I debated what my last meal should be, but Courtney smartly pointed out that I need to make my last meal memorable. This meant back to the Fiskfelagid Fish Company. This time I skipped the soup and the beer and ended up with another AMAZING Salted Cod with Saffron for only $15! Maybe I should quit drinking just so I can eat better? Nah, otherwise I never would have taken that super cool Eagle Rock Brewery photo at the Gullfoss or gotten hooked up with the three free pint glasses.

The highlight of the day was Bad Taste Records. It's the retail store associated with Bad Taste Records, which is the label that Björk was on way back in the day. I heard an amazing version of the Sugarcubes' song "Birthday" recorded in Icelandic and bought a copy of the special Icelandic compilation it's on. I got the double CD for just $9.45. WHOOOOO.

This discovery is in part attributed to Lindsay, too. I had stumbled into Bad Taste earlier in the week but it's tiny and was outta there pretty fast. But she mentioned that there was a Björk album that was released only in Iceland and thought it might be cool to find it. I did some digging online for it and discovered the name of the record label Bad Taste and figured that that would be a good place to look for some good native tunes. And voila!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Iceland Day 6: The Highland Trail

I'm finally going to lead with the news in a blog post.

That is me standing on a real frakking glacier! It's Langjökull—the second-largest glacier in Iceland. Walking on it was a literal out-of-body experience; at least three times I stopped spun in a circle and said to myself "I'm standing on a glacier right now." All the science from Willow Ridge Elementary School (where my favourite library book was Arctic Lands) and earth science with Mike Aronica in eighth grade rushed back to me in a good way.

When I woke up I wasn't sure what to expect this morning. Saturday's improvised substitute for our aborted volcano tour ended up scuttling my original plan for Tuesday's tour. After much research I found what appeared to be an acceptable substitute: The Highland Trail tour offered by Iceland Excursions. The description said:

We start our journey by driving through the tunnel underneath the Hvalfjord to meet our guide at Deildartunguhver. From there we continue on to Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Our route now takes us over the Kaldidalur pass, which is the second highest pass in Iceland, past Langjökull glacier. We stop at Jaki for a walk towards the glacier. Our last stop before returning to Reykjavik is at Thingvellir national park.

A walk toward a glacier sounded pretty great, but on Saturday I saw a group get it's glacier hike canceled. And this just said "toward" a glacier, what does that even mean? Regardless it was my last fully day, only $100ish and a 7.5-8-hour tour that didn't start until 1 p.m. What's to complain about? I'm in freaking Iceland FFS!!!

This is Barnafoss, one of many amazing waterfalls I've seen in Iceland. Seriously, if you love waterfalls (Dave) then Iceland is the country for you. This was one much bigger than the others in terms of width, but not as high.

When I'm home in L.A. I'll upload about a dozen photos from here. Wished I had a little more time here to try to figure out how to get lower. Gorgeous though.

More of the the glacier here.

OK, when the fam went to the Grand Canyon in sixth grade my father was worried that me (and my mom) got too close to the guard rail-less edge. It's become a running joke in the family for my dad to say "don't get too close." He of course reminded me before this trip. Hell, when I went to AZ with my friend Jon, even he got in on it (but seriously, because as usual I like getting close enough to see over edges).

Well, with the glacier it's not really the edge that matters. Though the opening shown here is actually much deeper than this looks and the water was moving crazy fast, I'd never fit in and the traction was surprisingly great for my hiking boots. (Hooray Keen!) The rub with glaciers is that the surface is unpredictable and could be covering something dangerous, like a fissure or a soft spot. Our guide, Mathias, told me that earlier this year two major accidents happened on this glacier, but much further in.

As we were all leaving, little Ian (who looked about 8) was about 70 feet in front of his mom and Mathias and about the same distance behind me and the Canadian couple I'd met. Suddenly I hear him yelling out something unintelligible. He's been really excitable on the glacier ("I'm gonna walk where I want," "I'm gonna walk as far as I want," "Have we walked a mile?") much I like I imagine I would have been, so I ignored it momentarily. Suddenly, though ...

"I'm stuck," Ian yells out.

I turn around and see him struggling to free his right leg, which is submerged into the slushy snow all the way up to his hip. He keeps yelling out that he's stuck and is clearly getting super scared. This kid had been all confidence, suddenly he was a helpless 8ish-year-old.

I sprint to him and start pulling him up. Of course, one of my legs sinks into the slushy snow.

"Hold on, Ian," I reassure him. "I gotta free myself before I can get you out. But don't worry. You're gonna be fine." I free myself quickly, find more solid footing and start pulling. I'm getting him part way out, but I can't quite free him. Thankfully, Winnipeg guy comes over and we get him out together.

By now, his mom is saying almost caught up to us and saying "thanks" and reminding Ian to thank us as well. All's well that ends well.

The tour continues along the super bumpy dirt road, which is actually the highest road in Iceland. It literally looks like we're on another planet. There is zero light and virtually zero evidence of humans. Living in L.A. now, it's sometimes hard to remember that there are unmarked places on the Earth.

OK, we get back to Reykjavik at about 8:45 p.m. I am famished beyond belief. Rather than explore for something new, I head to B5 (again) where I know I can get amazing fries and a great veggie burger for 1000 isk, which is like $7.85. Thankfully, Arnie is working again so I'll get to say farewell. I order a Scotch and he's never poured one. I find out he's been working as a bartender for just two weeks. Prior to that he had been in law school/considering law school, but realized he didn't want to become a lawyer.

I teach him that to eyeball it rather than use the shot measuring spoon, pour the scotch to as high in the glass as the width of a finger. He pours me a little extra and also doesn't even know what to charge. He ends up charging me less than a beer. I end up ordering three and each time I get the super cheap rate (cheaper than a beer) and nearly a double with the first two. At the end of the night I have a final question.

"Arnie, I have a strange request."

"Sure, what is it?"

"Can I buy a Gull pint glass?"

"No," I'm a little surprised, given the rapport we seemed to have. "But you can have one for free. They give them to us for free. Here." Then he gives me two more so that I end up with one of each kind the bar has. BONUS!

Here's Arnie ...

Monday, June 14, 2010

Iceland Day 5: Recovering in Reykjavik

Super chill day that had only two musts on it: book a tour for Tuesday, which after several hours of scouring the web Sunday night, I found one that wasn't too long or expensive; make my Flybus reservation for Wednesday. Other than that it was a day to get some exercise walking around Reykjavik, read, blog, take pictures of stuff in the city that I hadn't seen and try a couple new restaurants.

Years ago as a newspaper reporter, I covered Frank Serpico's graduation speech at the Albany Academy. The legendary incorruptible cop dispensed some interesting wisdom, but what stands out to me practically 10 years later is don't go to Moscow to eat at McDonald's. I've taken that to heart since then trying to eschew chain restaurants whenever I can. The flip side isn't just to avoid chains, but to embrace the local. In a country like Iceland that means seafood. (Fun fact: 45 percent of Iceland's exports are seafood or seafood-related).

Iceland Must No 3: Fiskfelagid Fish Company. Literally one of the best lunches I have ever had. To start: more seafood soup. Even though *cured shark is the national food, it's seafood soup that seems ubiquitous to me. Every restaurant seems to have it. Fishsoup, bonito foam, boiled mussels & garlic roasted langoustine (mini lobster tails) with a coconut hint throughout. Rich and creamy and bursting with flavors only present in freshly caught ingredients. Once again, the fundamental rule I've learned from watching Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares and Food Network is that the best meals allow the ingredients' inherent flavours to shine.

The main course: salted cod in vanilla, mussels piripiri, carrots, garlic mashed potatoes and saffron foam. The cod is sooooooo perfectly prepared. The fish breaks apart into flaky, perfect bite-sized pieces. It's slightly sweet and salty that works great solo or mixed with the potatoes and carrots. The dish is also served with small cubes of chorizo that I mostly avoided (as a non pig eater) but when I had them they, of course, were great, too.

The best thing about this lunch, it costs only $40 and that included a beer, tax and tip. Yeah, that's an uncheap lunch for one, but I'm on vacation! And this sincerely felt as good as dinner at Craft (almost) so I can't complain in the least. I really felt like I got the better of the restaurant.

*Cured shark. Shark cannot be eaten immediately after catching, because it's toxic to humans. Sharks lack kidneys so they excrete their waste through their muscles and skin. To remove the biotoxins, eventually Icelanders discovered that if you buried a shark for four months before eating it, then it would be fine. Well, fine as in not kill you, but not fine to taste. Syli (sp?) our guide on the aborted-volcano tour, told us that though he likes it, Icelanders typically do not eat or even like cured shark. He also joked that it must have sucked trying to figure out the number of weeks required until the shark was ready. And how hungry must someone have been after four months to eat toxic, ass-tasting shark?

Before lunch I spent the morning at the Reykjavik Art Museum, which was OK save for one exhibit which I found fascinating. The description is from the curator's notes.

Vanitas, Still-life in Contemporary Icelandic Art
Curator: Hafþór Yngvason

The Latin word vanitas means vanity, something that is empty, vain or valueless. In art history, vanitas is used for the artistic genre of still-life paintings that are symbolic of the futility of earthly life. It is a sub-category of a larger class of artworks referred to as memento mori (literally, “remember that you must die”) and is mostly used for Dutch paintings of the sixteenth and seventieth centuries.

Here we use the term for contemporary paintings and sculptures that count as still-life, although many of them were not originally presented as such. They all function on different levels but by bringing them together under the heading of vanitas, the intent is to highlight certain aspects of the artists‟ approaches to materials and construction but also to bring attention to the reminder of transience and renewal that is found in most or all of the works.

The necessity of care is also the subject of a two-piece sculpture by Rósa Gísladóttir. The title, Verðandi … Skuld refers to the names of two norns in Norse mythology. Verðandi (literally, “to become”) stands for the present and Skuld (“debt”) for the future. We are reminded that we owe the future, for better or for worse. This is a classic warning of a memento mori. Considering the materials of the two pieces and the enormous amounts of plastic containers used in daily life, the debt that we are referred to is environmental in nature. But the title refers us also to the life giving activity of the norns, who live by the tree of life, Askur Yggdrasils, and water it daily. Considering the shapes of the two sculptures—a bottle and a bowl—we are reminded of the simple fundamentals of life and of our responsibility to nurture it for the future.

I spend the rest of the day just walking through town again, snapping pictures of buildings, ducks and soaking up my last full day in the city.

Ducks in the pond outside City Hall:

The National Theatre:

Another view of the Hallgrimskirkja:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Iceland Day 4: (Mike vs. Eyjafjallajokull) vs. SCIENCE

Blog readers: today's (day late) entry is loooooooooong, sorry. And no pictures for a while, but there was so much stupid, but memorable drama, that I had to get that out. The pictures are worth it though, so feel free to scroll down!

Leading up to my trip to Iceland I had one single MUST: I was going to visit the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. (Sadly, I still haven't learned how to say it properly, listen to the audio clips at the bottom of this NPR story and it kind of explains why—the locals say it too fast.) After all, when I would have another opportunity to see an active volcano or at least an area still in the throes of the devastation unleashed by nature?

Everything else about the trip I'd semi-improvise letting my whims dictate which days I wanted to tour and which days I wanted to explore Reykjavik. Fearing sold-out tours, though, I booked one of the $200+ Eyjafjallajokull tours before I left. This one would be in a SuperJeep that would drive us to areas only accessible by Jeeps with mega-sized tires and we'd get to hike around the crater. From that day I circled Sunday, June 13 on my mental calendar for this once-in-a-lifetime scientific adventure. This was such a big deal that even someone I'd met the day before on another tour requested I take a lot of pictures and share them.

On Saturday, while waiting to get picked up for that tour, the hotel desk clerk hands me an e-mail the hotel received from the tour company, Iceland Total, saying that there had been a mistake and I wouldn't be picked up at 9:30 but instead some time bewteen 8:20 and 8:40 a.m. by a Reykjavik Excursions shuttle. Oddly, shortly before my trip I had received a similar e-mail saying pickup had been changed to 8:30. The time listed on my original booking receipt was 8:30 pickup for a 9 a.m. departure. A partner carrier would pick me up then and later we would rendezvous with our SuperJeeps somewhere and then get lunch at a hotel and then scientific adventure!

I am so eager for the trip that I don't need my alarm clock (getting my body on GMT, finally, helped a lot, too). I get down there at 8:10 a.m. to grab some water, read and wait.

8:20 a.m. I anxiously check my watch. It's raining outside.

8:25 a.m. A Reykjavik Excursions shuttle pulls up. I am out of my seat before the driver walks in. I say my name and he says I'm not on his list. Four other people are though and they leave with him, smiling as they say that they're about to go see ICELAND!

8:30 a.m. I can't read because I'm too distracted now. This is saying something, too, because David Cullen's Columbine, which I'm halfway through, is one of the best books I've ever read.

8:37 a.m. Another Reykjavik Excursions shuttle pulls up. I'm not on the list.

8:45 a.m. The lobby has depeopled from about 15 of us to maybe 4-5? I approach the woman working the front desk (who is not shockingly for Reykjavik tall, blonde and strikingly beautiful). "My reservation says I should have been picked up by 8:40, should I be nervous?" I hand her the paper.

She immediately gets on the phone. Her business-like demeanor has me encouraged in that she's taking my concerns seriously, but nervous that my concerns are worth being taken seriously. Not getting picked up by 8:45 for a 9 a.m. tour apparently puts you in the risk pool for a forgotten passenger.

8:47 a.m. "I keep getting a busy ... tone," she says. She hangs up and dials again. Someone picks up and it's fast-talking Icelandic.

8:50 a.m. "Someone is coming," she says smiling with a confidence that calms me.

"Thanks," I say feeling relieved that my most anticipated part of the trip hasn't died a premature death.

8:55 a.m. Van driver pulls up in the pickup shuttle. These smaller shuttles are not tour buses.

9:05 a.m. We get to the Reykjavik bus station from where we would be departing once I found my actual tour bus. As I'm leaving, the driver, who'd been stoic even for an Icelander, points me at a nearby van.

When I ask that van driver whether he's taking people to the volcano he says "No. We're going glacier hiking. I'm not sure who's doing that one."

Most buses are nearly full and almost everyone whose faces I can see looks already impatient feeling like we're running late. I am confused. A very nice woman suddenly comes up and rescues me from the look on my face. After she scans my printout she says, "You're with me" and points me to the "South Coast Tour" bus.

When I board I ask someone near me whether he's going to the volcano and he says, "no." But an Irish couple behind us says that they are and that not to worry, this is the correct bus. Whew. Finally I can relax. It's been a bit snagged and we're a little late, but unpronounceable volcano, here I come! Well, almost, we have to change buses before we leave because we're on one that's too small. We're transporting Reykjavik Excursion South Shore people, my volcano group and also a group of glacier hikers who are with another smaller company that only handles the on-site stuff. There are more people than they had thought. Not a great sign, but hopefully the final minor fuckup.

After our driver who looks like Simon Pegg (Scotty from Star Trek and also Shaun of the Dead) misses a clear turn off and has to do a U-turn, our trip starts along the same road (Highway 1, the only road in Iceland that takes people around the perimeter of the country and it's mostly just two lanes), as yesterday's trip the Golden Circle. Since this is information I've heard just the day before I start zoning out and get ready to take out my iPod when suddenly ...

"Excuse me, people, but because of weather, the glacier hike has been cancelled. The company just called me. They are very sorry. But the ash has covered the road leading to it and the glacier and it would be too dangerous," says our tour guide, the woman who rescued me from my confusion earlier. "Now you have two options, you can stay with us on our South Shore tour and then get a refund when you get back. Or you can try to join the volcano tour. This tour costs more so you'll have to pay when we get to the Volcano jeeps." After several repeats of this announcement things get ugly (American).

A woman behind me a bit and the other side of the bus is LIVID. She's going on and on about how she has planned each day so that she's not overlapping activities and if she ends up doing the South Shore today it's gonna conflict with something similar later. I get that she's frustrated. Totally. But the bus tour guide is not responsible for the weather or the call to cancel the glacier hike. "To see ash is really not interesting, if I were to see lava ... . Try to find out if you can what else this tour does," she directs in her most condescending voice. She also asks the tour guide to call the company leading her later tours with a whole host of questions about changing her itinerary if she does end up doing South Shore today.

I am embarrassed for America. Yeah, it sucks what happened to her, but treating this very friendly woman so rudely, when other members of the glacier-hiking group just went with the flow and either joined the volcano group or decided to stick this out and get refunded, made her stand out as "the ugly American."

Impatient with the lack of response from the tour guide, who, btw, is also trying to give the actual tour, ugly american woman asks me about the volcano tour because she'd overheard me talking about it. I tell her what little I know: we're going to an unaccessible area and we get to hike around closer than any other tour that's offered. I don't know about lava though, though I think not.

The tour guide is still juggling this woman, phone calls from someone (maybe her boss or one of the other tour operators to coordinate unexpected mid-tour transfers) and trying to give the tour, I was ready to volunteer to take over the tour. I remembered this section well, it's the geothermal heart of the of country, there are lots of horses in Iceland, blahblahblah. And she was also giving the tour in German, and I felt like I could almost fake that enough based on HS and college to pass with the Deutsch, too. I ultimately didn't get that presumptuous.

Eventually ugly American realizes she needs to chill and wait until we get to a stop before resuming her quest for whatever it is she needs. Meanwhile our driver keeps getting mystified by the roundabouts. It's clear to me and a few other people I've made eye-rolling contact with which direction we should be going in these, but he misses them. There are only three options and we're looking for the signs for the village of Vik, which isn't hard to spot (no sign has more than two names on it and most have just one).

Finally we're settling in and I note some good karma, the dude next to me is listening to "Sweet Child o Mine" on his iPod and playing some air guitar and rocking out with his head bobbing. Good times.

We get to the first rest stop eventually and we disembark to get coffee, use the bathroom (I again have to stand on my tip toes to use the urinal, damn you tall people!) and stretch our legs. The tour guide, who has maintained a Zen-like calm during all the not-at-all-her-fault-but-she's-the-face-in-front-of-us bullshit, informs ugly american that she's talked to her other tour company and can make the changes she needs to keep her "no duplicating anything" (or whatever the fuck it was) agenda. Ugly American says thanks, but of course no "sorry." Then she asks to borrow the guide's cell phone, because she'd feel better if she talks to them herself. The guide sunnily agrees to this. Talk about the customer always being right. Icelandic tourism peeps (the country over from what I've seen) are fantastic. The best news, ugly american decides to stick with the South Shore tour and not join me on volcano! But GNR guy and his wife are! Has the screw turned finally for the good?

[Blog announcement: stuff actually about me and my tour and pictures coming very soon!]

12:30 (?) The bus drops off at the Hotel Anna, which is in the country, at the foot of the mountain that is home to the volcano. We can't see much though because of enormous, think clouds blanketing the peak. At the hotel, we'll be served a two-course meal (included in the Iceland Total package) and then board our SuperJeeps. Thankfully they could accommodate our group, which grew from three of us to 12 of us with the glacier hikers who joined our group. The lunch was yet another amazing seafood meal; this time I had fresh trout. Soooo good. With great potatoes and a small side salad, also vegetable soup for an appetizer. Mmmmmmmm.

Halfway through lunch, a burly blond man bounds in says hi and introduces himself as our tour guide. We look out the window and can now see the SuperJeeps. It looks they might be jump starting one. YIKES! Upon further review, they're charging an air compressor or something from one of the Superjeeps' batteries.

"Hello everyone, I'm really sorry," burly guy announces. "But the weather has caused the volcano tour a problem, too. The clouds are too high."

Um, what does that mean, I think to myself.

"If they were lower, like fog, we would drive through them and then we could show you the crater. But these clouds are on the crater covering it. You won't see anything and it would be very dangerous to drive up there."

The room deflates.

"But we're going to make a great tour for you," he says with a smile and enthusiasm that we're all at least a little bouyed. He says that they're going to lead us into Thorsmark national park area which was devastated by the flooding after the eruption and show us some amazing sights. And then hopefully after that it'll clear and we can go up for a briefer hike. He doesn't promise anything, but we're feeling optimistic.

Once we enter the grounds it's just dark gray and desolate as far as the eye can see. Syli (sp?) our driver points to the mountains that we're leaving behind and says to notice the green on the sides. Then he directs us to the mountains on our immediate right. No green. There was two months ago, he says. YIKES. At its peak the volcano produced 3000ish cubic meters of water per second of flooding. They had anticipated like 10x that. Iceland also decided to pre-emptively destroy some roads to create flood channels that would then spare bridges, which are harder to rebuild than roads. Interesting.

To make Thorsmark even a close substitute for Eyjafjallajokull though, Syli knows he's gotta do better though. So he says he's going to take us into a closed off area, but we'll have to get permission from the police, who he doesn't recognize otherwise it wouldn't even be a problem. At this point, I'm expecting that we're going to have to pool our cash to bribe this guy. It doesn't happen. I am oddly disappointed.

So here (finally!) are some pictures of Thorsmark Nature Preserve that will go way beyond what I can write ...

It was like being on the moon. The white blur at the top is the cloud covering precisely where the Eyjafjallajokull crater is. As Syli put it: "You can't trust volcanoes. You can't trust the weather. When you have to trust both at the same time ..." Another way he phrased it: "If we got up there, you'd see the same thing and hear me say 'trust me, it's under that cloud we're standing in.'" None of us went ugly american on him or ugly whatever country we were from.

Here are some people to give you some idea of perspective and magnitude.

The rocky-looking, lighter gray formation on the left is actually the glacier. It should be basically white with rocks.

Unfortunately, the weather never clears so they go to Plan B, the black sand beaches and another waterfall. There are LOTS OF WATERFALLS in Iceland (Dave, you would love it the most).

The black sand beaches are also unlike anything I've ever seen. Jenny Lewis's song "Black Sand" played in my head the entire time we were there. We had a much cooler black-sand-beach experience than any other tour, because of the SuperJeeps. Our drivers sped along the sand, splashing violently through the surf. It was awesome. I have two small rocks. Btw, black sand is really just old ash and volcanic rock bits.

This is the Seljalandsfoss waterfall we toured after hooking back up with the South Shore group.

This is a picture I took standing behind it!

Eventually, we get back to Reykjavik an hour after our original arrival time, because of the late start. The tour operators are nice enough to drop me at The Pearl where'd I arranged to meet up with Lindsay from Golden Circle tour and compare notes on our separate Sunday tours. I learn that I basically did the South Shore tour, with the black sand beach partly substituting for volcano (and we had more fun than anyone else who does it). So now my Tuesday plans are scuttled. I know I'll figure it out.

Iceland Day 4: prelude to a volcano

I slept great (at least compared to previous nights). I fell asleep just after midnight, hooray! NO NAPS NO NAPS! This volcano is going down.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Iceland Day 3: Grand Golden Circle

Finished my first guided bus tour a few hours ago. Sooooo tired now, but good tired. Once again, my body clock permitted me only a few hours sleep and then today was a full day of sight-seeing with plenty of walking, though thank god I didn't have to drive. That would have been brutal. Hooray, bus tours!

Grand Golden Circle is a seven-hour tour through parts of southern Iceland that includes a stop at a geothermal power plant (really cool), a volcanic crater, a salmon ladder, the literal mother of all "Geysirs," agorgeous water fall, the rift valley, and Iceland's original Viking parliament. ...

Stop 1: Hellisheiði Geothermal Power Plant

That's the view inside one of the turbines, which is down for maintenance right now. The country is trying to use its expertise in geothermal energy to become a world leader. The relatively easy access to underground steam makes this a no-brainer for Iceland. Fun times. Short stop and they had a very nice tour guide. PR is big biz for the geothermal energy plant and the power company. On the gift shop counter each PR person had a full-color business card with his/her picture on it. And there were at least 6.

And yes, the geothermal power plant had a gift shop! And I solved the great T-shirt conundrum. One of my goals here was to get a "cool" (defined by me) T-shirt. That meant nothing "too obviously touristy" like "I love Iceland" or "Lost in Iceland."

That's me in front of the Strokkur hot spring, which is literally the mother of all geysers in the entire world. At one time this was thought to be the only spring that erupted with regularity and the word for it "geysir" became adopted as "geyser" everywhere else. This is actually the second biggie in Iceland. The first died after seismic activity in the 1940s, according to what I remember our awesome tour guide saying.

This bus tour brought out the best in traveling alone. I met two great traveling companions who were in town just having attended the 12th Deep-Sea Biology Symposium. They were interesting to talk to, very chill and Lindsay (who is from outside Halifax, Nova Scotia and spoke with the always-endearing Canadian accent) was nice enough to take pix of me throughout. So a solo vacation that has pix of me!

Next ... Gullfoss

Don't worry, dad, I didn't get "too close" to the edge. The Picassa album of this trip, which I won't be able to create until I get back because of a wonky net connection, will have way more photos of this place.

Thingvellir National Park, the site of the first Icelandic parliament, Althing. Basically, it's where the Vikings had parliament and held high court. Pretty civilized! The flag marks where it was. Sadly the ruins are pretty overgrown and poorly preserved. It must be something they learned from the Greeks.
Other discoveries/lessons of today: Iceland has 90,000 horses and exported 2,000 last year. There are only 320,000 people in the country. I am too short to live in this country. I've had to stand on my tiptoes to use three urinals. Icelanders don't say "V." It's Pavel Chekhov all the time.
MUST 2. Saegreifinn, or Sea Baron. Insanely amazing lobster soup. I learned of this place watching Three Sheets on the former Fine Living Network. Host Zane Lamprey traveled the world partaking in different countries' or regions' alcohol traditions. He tried this place because it was famous, cheap and a supposedly good hangover cure. I don't know if it cures hangovers, but it was amazing. And also cheap. My hearty-sized bowl of soup costs just 1100 krona. That's only $8, as of this typing. The currency fluctuates a lot. In Reykjavik that's a steal for a meal. I saw the old man who owned the place whom Zane had on. He was funny. In the middle of dinner he brought out a whale vertebrae. He just carried it into the dining room and laughed and smiled at all of us, as he set it down on the table and then floor. One guy picked it up and the owner gave him thumbs up. It was really weird, because none of us knew what we were supposed to be doing other than smiling. And with that I am signing off the blog today.
Tomorrow I finally take on the unpronounceable volcano. I seriously at least hope to learn how to say it. This is a bus tour that takes us to superJeeps that can access the back country roads. Hopefully can find traveling companions on this excursion who are even close to Lindsay and Leo. Hooray deep-sea biologists!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Iceland Day 2: Reykjavik

Another rough morning because despite whatever fatigue I feel at around 11 p.m. local time, my body has no interest in sleeping at 3 a.m. local time, because to me that's only 8 p.m. Damn you, human body.

But since I knew that I wanted to schedule a day-tour Saturday and those typically start early in the morning, I was happy when I woke up around 9:30 a.m. and with only about 4ish hours sleep. Perhaps I would finally get my body clock close to local time?

I kept today light. Despite my earlier arousal, I still missed the comp. breakfast in the hotel lobby. I headed to one of the tourist info centers to book tomorrow's trip and settled on the Golden Circle. There are so many tour companies that I was glad to get some advice from a local tourism rep. She said that the bigger companies charge more and are typically a little less flexible with the trip because the busses are big and packed with so many people. The smaller companies are usually just as good, though, and cheaper and might be a little more flexible if the people on the tour have some general consensus about perhaps extending a stay for a bit. I booked with Netbus, based on this recommendation. I saved about $30. Not bad.

Other than that I tried to find the Reykjavik Art Museum but no luck. I forgot my city guide in the hotel. :( And since my right foot was cramping a bit I didn't have it in me to extend my already very long walk even further without a certain destination in mind. I did get these pictures though.

This is one leg of a sculpture of a Viking ship as one faces north toward mountains and some of the bluest water I've ever seen.

And the most random American export I could have imagined ...

Ruby Tuesday, seriously? I think even Amherst, NY has avoided the RT. Granted every other chain has inhabited Amherst, but still. Also saw at least another three or four A-Team bus stop signs and two Domino's and tons of Domino's signs. The search for pizza here was snake eyes. I had lunch at Pomodoro Rosso and went for a four-cheese pizza because everything else was super meaty. Amazing langoustine soup, OK pizza. It was a white pizza, which I should have noticed on the menu. I need red sauce or to me, it's not even worthy of being called pizza.

For a while I was the only one there. Eventually a family of four and couple also joined me, but it was very spare. Felt badly for the two people I saw working there.

Had dinner at B5 again. The lunch had me feeling kinda queasy stomach wise so a straight up veggie burger and plain fries seemed sensible and also cheap after last night's fine dining experience. I also remembered to pick up some sunscreen since my face is now quite pink.

Despite it being Friday night (almost 10 p.m. here) and the first night of the weekend night's pub crawl, I am chiling tonight. I have to be up early and I think am finally sufficiently tired to get to sleep at a reasonable hour. And I don't want to sleep away the bus ride since we'll be going through stunning country.

Signing off. Didn't learn any new Icelandic words today. :(

Iceland Day 2: Reykjavik

I'm going on about four hours sleep today. The goal is not nap. I need to get my clock more closely oriented to Iceland time or the bus tours are going to be brutal since they start early!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Iceland Day 1: Reykjavik

It's 0:21 (just after midnight) as I start today's blog post. I'm listening to the new Jónsi album and following along to Bill Simmons's live chat of game 4 of the NBA finals. Internet = perfect cultural bridge for an adopted Korean-American in Reykjavik, Iceland. That gorgeous building is the Church of Hallgrimur, a Lutheran church about a mile from my hotel. It's stunning. I wish I were a better photographer. Tomorrow I am going to try to replicate (pay homage to) shots I've seen online.

Today all the withdrawals my body made from the energy banks came due. Fortunately, I kinda figured this would be the case so I kept it agenda-free. I slept in until after noon, which was surprising given that the mattress/pillow are like a combined 107 years old I think. Hooray for no back pain!

I left my hotel and headed west (though I didn't even have that orientation when I started the day). I walked around downtown taking in the sights and realized one huge reason why women legitimately love shopping more than most men ... there's a heluva lot more of it to do. Not that I'm in the market to come home with lots of clothes or stuff in general (no space in luggage really), but the ratio of women's stores to men's stores has to be at like 10:1. No hyperbole required. And the men's stores are standard dead-tek, neo-bullshit clothes. The women's boutiques look far funkier and more local, which for many in Reykjavik means black on black on black. Amanda, you might feel underblacked.

Stuff that caught my attention today:

The above church. That's a statue of Leifr Eiricson in front; he's the discoverer of Vinland. The United States gave Iceland this statue in 1930.

The number of Indian restaurants, at least three today; I think the only cultural fare that outnumbers is that is Irish pubs, which I'm up to four.

Handprjónasambadi∂ the home of the Handknitting Association of Iceland and where I bought some great gloves. I also got a tax refund from the store which I need to remember to redeem at the airport. This was their version of a stimulus enacted several years ago, probably around 2005 when their economy cratered and which coincides with the country's attempted massive aluminium (aluminum to us) production growth. Pekke the bus driver told us last night that the government sees further increased aluminium production as part of the savior to rescuing Iceland.

B5 bar and bistro. From NYT in January 09: The shelves of liquor behind the bar at B5 (Bankastraeti 5; 354-552-9600) are bathed in glowing lights of different hues: orange, yellow, pink. And the big front window provides a great view of a street.

By 2ish p.m. I was famished. I'd been walking for nearly an hour up and down hills and had barely eaten in probably 18 hours. I go inside and of course it's four Americans. They were all in town for a wedding, btw, how cool is that!? If I ever get married I seriously might have to do the out-of-the-country thing. Granted for them it's because she was from Norway.

At a bistro I was hoping for the Icelandic twist on American pub food, instead I learned that B5, which is known as one of Reykjavik's hottest spots, has a small burger joint as the kitchen. There are few options, so I get a surprisingly good veggie burger with LTC. They also made excellent fries. But now the fun starts, which for me means sampling the locals' alcohol. If you're one of my students, STOP READING NOW.

The bartender recommends Polar Bear beer but says that Gull (pronounced /gulg/, which mean "gold") is the most popular. Honestly, they were both pretty weak. They taste almost Coorsish in terms of lack of flavor. I mean nothing objectionable, but just not much there, period. "Arnie" whose Icelandic name "Arnijul" I never quite mastered pronouncing despite many tries, says he doesn't like beer so admits his recommendation wasn't so strong.

But the drinks I'm most intrigued by are Topas and Opal. The former Fine Living Network had a show called Three Sheets in which comedian Zane Lamprey toured the world trying out local drinking customs. On the Iceland show he tried these two liquors which are based on very famous children's candies. He wasn't a fan. I am not either. Opal is exactly like flavored children's cough syrup. Topas is just slightly better (little sweeter but with a weird aftertaste). Arnijul's website is here, btw, he's a super nice guy who is in favor of legalizing pot, likes Michael Pollan and is also a bit of a conspiracy theorist. However, also a damned good bartender (friendly, knowledgeable about LOTS of stuff) who lives next to the Prime Minister!

Rest of afternoon is a long walk around the city until I got here.

After this gorgeous view I get lost a little. At least my lack of bearings has me completely unprepared when I end up near the Opera house which has become one of my landmarks. Back to hotel for loooooong nap. I wake up around 7 p.m. and then decide I should stir myself out of bed and get dinner, which brings me to my first MUST.

Silfur. It's a high-end seafood restaurant that rivals Craft for preparing one of the best meals I've ever had. I went with a three-course dinner for 4.900 kronur add in the glass of wine (not so great) and coffee and it was just 6.400 or $49, are you kidding me?

Appetizer: Saffron shellfish soup with fried Icelandic langoustine, scallop & mussle. Um, this might be the best soup I've ever had. I am not a lobster fan, but the langoustine (mini lobster) was succulent and the saffron broth was so rich, yet not heavy at all. Btw, the meal started with an amuse, that was some kind of blended-it-was-almost-creamy fish. Maybe arctic char quasi-mousse style?

Main course: Grilled monkfish served with Icelandic “smælki” potatoes & curry sauce. Excellent. The curry sauce was just about perfect. Given my palate, I wouldn't have minded some heat, but the flavor was great and it complimented the fish rather than overpowered it. Also served with some grilled (?) fruits and veggies on the side. Sadly, I don't know what ones, but they were great.

Dessert: Waffle with strawberry ice cream and baileys ice cream with skyr pannacotta and passion. Yes, that's what the menu said. Just "passion." If so, then all desserts must be prepared with passion. The strawberry ice cream was so tasty and I don't even like ice cream and combined with the waffle was like a perfect breakfasty dessert. The pannacotta was lucious and the bailey's ice cream was actually a little tame comparatively, but still solid.

The service was outstanding and very very friendly. Oddly, credit card receipts don't come with a blank for gratuity. When I asked the waitress said that they have them, but you have to tell them before they ring it up otherwise they have to do it again. I obviously wasn't going to be a heel so thankfully cash was of course cool.

I passed on some local delicacies: whale and foal. No way I'm eating Shamu or pick-your-favorite-horse-from-literature.

In the end one of the best meals of my life for just $65. So worth the splurge. Tomorrow though, I'm toning it down and plan to try Icelandic pizza. I am skeptical.

Incidentally, it was brighter leaving the restaurant after 11 p.m. than at pretty much any time since I've been here. The clouds drifted away and I wore sunglasses.

Tomorrow is one of the two intense pubcrawl nights. I am likely passing, especially if I book a tour for Saturday morning. I already have one booked for Sunday morning so for sure not partying hardcore Saturday night. The guy I was in college, grad school, Albany is officially dead.