September 3, 2006
I’ve been with a group of holiday volunteers for the past two weeks, and after our day off in Húsavík (when I last emailed), the summer slammed shut and winter moved in. We were working in the very northernmost tip of the country, so really there was nothing between us and the North Pole except for a thin row of birch trees on our campsite. Well, the birch trees and the Arctic Ocean. We were spreading gravel on footpaths, which isn’t very glamorous work anyway, but in dreadful weather it gets even worse. It literally rained for four days, nonstop. It was like Icelandic Water Torture… the constant drumming of rain on the hood of my waterproof jacket, the roof of the jeep, and the ceiling of my tent, day in and day out, all night long, was nearly enough to do my head in.
My tent, which has been valiant all summer, finally let me down and I returned home to find a cold, wet sleeping bag and soaked clothes. I think it was condensation and not a proper leak, but regardless of where the water came from, it was there. And there wasn’t much I could do about it, given the constant downpour, either. I was either in my tent, soaking up the water with my trousers and socks, or crouching outside trying to mop it dry while my back and legs got soaked by the rain. It was miserable, and really made me want to come home. We ended up pulling out of the park a day early because it was so cold and windy and wet, and we were afraid there might be some sort of Lord of the Flies rebellion if we didn’t change something. The final days have been much better, and I expanded my horizons by eating decomposed shark (putrid), sleeping in a haunted mountain hut (no sightings), and fording a river (no problems).
The green shark is an Icelandic delicacy, but it is not for the delicate. The shark is buried in sand for several months, where it starts to rot and the naturally present neurotoxins drain out of the body. At some point in history, someone dug it up and decided “hey, let’s try eating it NOW!” The rotting shark is cut into little chunks and served with bread, and usually with a shot of Brennivín (translation: burning wine), which is an Icelandic schnapps made from potatoes and caraway seeds. Some would say the only time you welcome the taste of Brennivín is after you’ve eaten a bite of rancid shark corpse. But the volunteers were trying it, so I did too, even though it was described as “chewing on a piss-soaked slug.” Mmmm. Can’t say I’m a fan, and there might have been some gagging involved, but I ate it. I think the piss-soaked slug might have been preferable.
We stayed in a remote mountain hut called Hvítarnes last night, which is the aforementioned haunted hut, but the woman carrying two pails of water said to visit the hut at night did not make an appearance. Hvítarnes is one of my favorite places in Iceland, so I was happy to have another night there before leaving in two weeks (!!!). The river I drove through wasn’t terribly deep (I’ve waded through deeper and much scarier rivers this summer) but it was my first vehicle ford, so it was pretty fun.
Tonight we’re all headed for a night out in Reykjavík and tomorrow the volunteers take off, leaving only nine of us still in the country, all leaders. The real work will begin, and we’ll give up doing the tour-guiding, boo-boo kissing, 24-7 care that’s involved with leading paying holiday volunteers. Wow, do I sound like a hardened cynic or what?? But really, I am looking forward to focusing on tasks and knowing that the people with whom I’m working can take care of themselves. Much less “faffing about”, as the British say.
I feel like I’ve been in a time warp, and the fact that it’s September is completely surreal. Nearly time to start thinking about jobs and bills and the so-called-real world again. The tent life has been good, occasional soakings aside, and there’s something beautifullyessential about carrying everything you need on your back. But man, it’ll be so cool to be able to change my clothes standing up.