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.

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