We Interrupt Scandinavia to Bring You– HawaiiCon!

2017 is the year I travel to islands that have active volcanoes.

Honu and Hibiscus. The hotel raises sea turtles and releases them into the ocean when they reach maturity.

Honu and Hibiscus. The hotel raises sea turtles and releases them into the ocean when they reach maturity.

Last week I went to the big island in Hawaii for HawaiiCon. This year’s writer guest of honor was Nnedi Okorafor; basically that’s worth the price of admission right there. Okorafor wrote Who Fears Death, the Binti series, the Akata series and Lagoon, along with many other works.

The media guests (and HawaiiCon’s roots are in media cons) included four —four!– actors from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. Nicholas Brendon (Xander) hosted the ziplining for them one entire day, then kicked of the Buffy “Once More With Feeling: singalong.

[Screechy brake noise] Ziplining? Wait… what?

Oh, yeah, did I mention that HawaiiCon is held at an Hawaiian resort? The Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows is like those places you see on TV or in that movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with Kirsten Bell. The grounds– I want to say complex– includes ziplining, a golf course, kayak and snorkle rental, shuttle, shops including a grocery store, in-pool and in ocean swimming… plus a lengthy walking path around some old Hawaiian fish ponds. Normally, nearly a week at this place would be out of my reach, or at least wildly unrealistic, but the Con rate this year was $175/night. It won’t be that good next year, but it will still be great compared to the hotel’s regular rates of about $400/night.
Included in the room rate are a couple of discounts for snorkling and kayak-rental.

The pool area

Swimming pools.

Back to the media track… besides Brendon, Emma Caulfield (Anya), Amber Benson (Tara) and Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia) showed up. I only ever saw Brendon as he was walking around the atrium or meeting folks to guide them to the zip-lining. We nodded and said “Hi” twice; he seems exuberantly friendly. Patricia Tellman, who played a telepath on Babylon Five, is a loyal regular (she lives on the island).  G.K. Bowes, an amazing actress who is making a name for herself in voice-work, and her son actor Kannon Kurowski, attended as well as New Zealand transplant Daniel Logan, who plays young Boba Fett.

A couple of cosplayers pose on a balcony

Coupla Cosplayers

I’m sorry I missed Amber Benson since she is both a both a writer and a reader, literally, a voice actor for audiobooks, but otherwise, the media track doesn’t interest me a lot. I saw Daniel on two panels and talked briefly with him at the food trucks one afternoon and he impressed me. I will definitely seek out the anime films G.K. Bowes has voiced.

Second to the media and cosplay track is the science track. I come to HawaiiCon for the writers track because I’m part of it, but I love the science track, which has expanded to include some serious and insightful discussions of what our popular culture feasts like Star Wars have to say about culture.

Here’s a sampling of science track topics:

Volcanoes of Hawaii.
Volcanoes in Film… what Hollywood gets right and what it gets wrong.
Squid farming.
Build a pasta tower (using uncooked pasta).
SF, science and the sacred.
Hawaiian heiaus (ritual platforms), and what they tell us about the Polynesian migration.
The cultures of Star Wars.

The writing track is small at HawaiiCon, but it is growing. Last year there were five writers and three were self-published. This year there were nine writers, and in addition to Nnedi Okorafor we had Wen Spencer, a fan favorite who publishes with Baen, Cynthia Felice who is considering reissuing her well-known work from the David Hartwell Timescape line, Marta Randall and John Hedkte, who has published nearly thirty non-fiction works. There were many more writing panels than last year, and the writers workshop was packed,the audience begged us to go another hour. I think things are coming along on that front.

Marqueeda LaStar and Leonardo Faierman of the lifestyle site Black Girl Nerds were in attendance, and Marqueeda provided a lively interview with Nnedi.

Rod Roddenberry (Eugene Roddenberry Jr) is a fixture at the con, and he provided a relaxed Q&A poolside. One of the hallmarks of the Con is that things are… relaxed. You may end up sipping an umbrella drink in the poolside bar with the celebrity or writer you just heard on a panel, or wading in the ocean next to a Star Wars player or a fantasy writer.

In my case, I had drinks with the two geologists who did the volcano panels, and a friend of theirs from Hilo, who is a biologist and who talked about endangered species on the big island. Another time Nnedi and I caught the shuttle back from the shops, and talked about HBO, the swordfish from her book Lagoon, and the koi in the pond under the portico.

And there is cosplay, notably a contest Saturday night. Cosplay is now big enough that there are panels about it.

I might provide some more in-depth columns later. As I am writing this, I glance at the clock in my hotel room and realize I need to be packing, because I fly home tomorrow. Here are some links. Next year promises to be every bit as fun and beautiful. Check it out.

Here’s the home page. And here is the blog.

Here is information on the venue, which will be the venue for 2018 as well (they’re already signed a contract).

More pictures will follow!

Sunset with the catamaran than provides the sunset cruise.

Sunset with the catamaran than provides the sunset cruise.


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Time for Some Product Evaluation

I bought two items new, solely to take to Finland and Iceland, and I’m taking a break from travelogue to discuss them.

I bought this Osgoode Murphy purse at Silk Moon. It’s leather, with a long strap so it can be worn messenger-style, which is how I prefer to wear purses. My purse before this one, which I used every day for four years, was also an Osgoode Murphy bag. The new bag is slightly more saddlebag shaped, with two zippered exterior pockets and a long zippered exterior compartment near the top of the purse.

Purse. Osgoode Murphy came through again.

Osgoode Murphy came through again.

I also succumbed to paranoia (and some gifted up-selling) and bought another, smaller purse,  with RFID blocking and fancy clasps on each zipper head. I never took that purse out of the suitcase.

I was going to say, “Starting in Finland, I systematically abused the purse,” but in fact I started earlier, on the plane, when I shoved my travel lanyard into it on top of the wallet, the checkbook, the address book, the business-card holder, the three energy bars, the tissues, the little metal-covered notebook, three pens, several varieties of lip balm, Advil, Airborne, a Tide stain remover stick and the last of a roll of cough drops. My phone fit perfectly in one of the zippered outer pockets, and my little Canon camera fit perfectly in the other pocket. I shoved my car and house keys into the zippered interior pocket, and my phone charger and electric converter in the long outer compartment. Over the course of the trip, I tugged that out and shoved it back in about seventeen times.

At WorldCon I folded up brochures and stuffed them in on top of everything else. I did have a tote bag, and I used it, but more and more smaller items, gift items mostly, went into the purse.

In Iceland, the purse got drenched by salt spray twice (boat trips). It got jammed down next to my feet or shoved against my side. I caught the strap on things at least twice. I did catch the fabric lining of the purse in the teeth of the zipper once when I was shoving my charging apparatus back into the purse for about the fifteenth time. Once I worked loose the fabric, the zipper was fine.

The purse is shiny as ever, and holding up as well as ever. No scuffs, no gaps.  Tonight, it gets a leather-balm spa treatment.

Lightweight cashmere poncho.

Lightweight cashmere poncho.


While I was at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference I bought this cashmere mini-poncho at Rainsong. It was expensive for something that is basically a sweater ($149).

It’s very light, and quite warm. The color is blue-gray. I brought a fleece jacket and a water-resistant jacket on the trip, I mainly used the poncho for evenings and a couple of morning walks. It was perfect. Since it’s so light, it could be easily stuffed into my tote bag for day trips.

Poncho folded with a dollar bill for size comparison.

This is neatly folded. I could actually scrunch it down smaller than this if I had to.

At Rainsong, the sales rep said she had women who “bought one in every color” (and I’m sure that’s true), or “one for the car and one for the house. They’re a little pricey by my lights, so I’ll settle for the blue, but one was worth the price.




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Iceland; Fun Facts

Our Gray Line tour guide asked us to call him G, because his full name was difficult for tourists to pronounce. On our ride back to Reykjavik, he shared a few fun facts about this northern island nation.

Wake and city from water. I did not grayscale this photo.

I did not grayscale this photo.

–Historically, Iceland was part of Denmark until 1918, although, as G put it, “Denmark paid no attention to us.” (Hurt feelings a little, G?) In the 19-teens, Icelandic students at university in Copenhagen got radicalized, came home and started a movement for independence, which was successful and basically peaceful. Iceland became an independent nation in 1918. Apparently Denmark really was just not that into them. Denmark’s loss, I’d say.

–In Iceland’s schools, all children learn Icelandic and English. Beginning in the fourth grade, they must learn a third language, either Swedish or Danish. Nearly everyone in Iceland is bilingual and many are trilingual. (We met a server at a restaurant who admitted with some chagrin that her Swedish wasn’t very good. She explained that to us in perfect English.)

–Icelandic is the oldest of the Scandinavian languages and the closest to Old Norse.

Whale tail, attached to a whale off the coast of Keflavik

Whale tail, attached to a whale off the coast of Keflavik

–Every town and village has a public swimming pool complex and the pools are for more than exercise. Townsfolk gather there for social get-togethers, catching up, social events and meetings. The pools are naturally heated with water from geothermal fields.

–Iceland’s one indigenous predator is the arctic fox. I’m sure before settlers moved in, the fox lived mostly on eggs and chicks of the arctic terns and skua who nest there. When human settlers came, they brought sheep… and with the sheep, they brought mice. Mice breed prolifically, which from a mouse perspective is good because most mice don’t survive a season. As G put it, “Life is not easy for Icelandic mice.”

–There is an indigenous Icelandic falcon, and Icelandic ravens. (SEE: “Life is not easy for Icelandic mice,” above.)

Harpa is Reykjavik's concert hall.

Harpa is Reykjavik’s concert hall.

–Tourism is Iceland’s second largest industry. Fishing is its largest. Fishing, G says, will not grow, because the nation “must keep it sustainable.”

–Iceland is a NATO country, even though it has no army. It has a Coast Guard that has a military arm, and a ground-to-air monitoring system. Iceland did send military personnel to Iraq during George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing.” They sent one person, and she was not a combat soldier (since they have no army); she was in signaling or navigation.

–Reykjavik gets its hot water from geothermal fields, which is why the water often smells like sulfur. It is mixed with glacial water so it is drinkable. Reykjavik also uses radiant heating, which mean hot water pipes under the floorboard of many of its homes and apartments… and uses a form of radiant heating underneath central roads in Rejkjavik, to keep them clear of ice and snow in the winter.

–G pointed out a snow-capped mountain on the horizon and introduced us to the active volcano, Eyjafjallajokul, which erupted in 2010, spewing a huge ash cloud into the air. Because of the prevailing winds, the ash shut down several European “hub” airports. Keflavik Airport wasn’t one of them. “American and European newsreaders could not say ‘Eyjaffjallajokul,’” he said, “so instead they called it E-15; E for the first letter and 15 for the number of remaining letters.”

–G talked a little, not much, about the great recession and Iceland’s banking crisis in 2008. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, the bank shenanigans in Iceland devastated that nation financially. Secondly, people in Iceland actually went to jail for what they had done, including the Secretary of the Ministry of Finance. The banks were nationalized. When the government came up with an austerity plan that would reduce Iceland’s global indebtedness, the people of Iceland rejected the plan, because it wasn’t austere enough. They told the government to come up with a more stringent plan, and Iceland has paid off its global debts in ten years.

Swan on Lake Tjornin, AKA The Pond.

Swan on Lake Tjornin, AKA The Pond.

G’s job is tour guide, and of course he is working off a script or talking points, but I came away with the impression that he likes his job and loves his beautiful country.

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The Continental Rift Ate My Glasses

“Three travelers set off that day for an eight-hour tour (an eight-hour tour).”
–Gilligan’s Island theme song (with some changes).

Iceland is full of natural wonders: active volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers, steam vents, lava fields, hot springs and lagoons. The Golden Circle Tour takes about eight hours, leaving from Reykjavik, and offers a sampler platter of these beauties. Specifically, on the Golden Circle tour you can see Gullfoss or the “golden falls,” a double-decker waterfall that hurls rainbows in all directions; the continental rift, and an active geyser in a geothermal field at Geysir.

Skyscape on the route to Thingvelle and the continental rift.

Skyscape on the route to Thingvelle and the continental rift.

There are many, many tour companies in Iceland. We chose Gray Line for cost and convenience, and I was not disappointed. We had a great guide. The bus left from Gray Line’s Reykjavik depot, but if you are staying in a hotel, there are nine Gray Line bus stops, so there is probably one within walking distance. (A Reykjavik city ordinance prohibits the buses from loading/unloading directly in front of the hotels because it creates a traffic delay; hence the nearby bus stops.)

The Continental Rift was Pretty, but it Ate My Glasses:

If it feels like North America and Europe are drifting apart, it’s not merely current political choices that have led to that sensation. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling away from each other at the rate of just under 1 centimeter per year. This rift then fills in with silt and water. In Iceland, the continental rift is about seven kilometers long. It’s filled largely with Iceland’s largest fresh-water lake.

The rift valley.

The rift valley.

Iceland’s National Park, Thingvelli, houses the rift, the lake and the Alpingi, home of Iceland’s first democratic parliament, which started in the common-era year 930. Part of the reason this area was chosen is because the vaulting volcanic walls form a natural amphitheater. The nearby lake and wetlands provided plenty of food for a large crowd. And, relatively speaking, it was central and easy to get to.

The Alpingi, the natural amphitheater and site of Iceland's democracy, 930 C.E.

The Alpingi, the natural amphitheater and site of Iceland’s democracy, 930 C.E.

The original Icelandic settlers were, hmm… how to put this nicely?  Let’s say they didn’t have a lot of use for kings. Many were outlawed or exiled from their Scandinavian country of origin. They wanted a different form of governance, and the Alpingi (Pronounced al-thing-kee) provided that. They met at the rift, inside the curving basaltic walls to decide on new laws, settle disputes, reapportion land, and celebrate marriages.

Lava rock and cliffs.

Lava rock and cliffs. Just to the left of the whorled lava, you can see a gap in the rock. That’s like the one my glasses went into.

(The Icelandic alphabet has more letters than the English one. One letter looks like a capital P done in an arty font. It is pronounced like the “th” in “there.”  Thingvelli is a transliteration; the original first letter is the Icelandic one.)

The terrain of the rift is awe-inspiring. From the tall walls of rock, to the places of swirled black lava and the vistas of the meandering waterways, leading to the lake, that are far below.

Yes, it’s beautiful, but I don’t like it, because it ate my glasses.

The elders watch. And laugh, probably.

The elders watch. And laugh, probably.

When we stepped out of the bus, it was windy, but at first it didn’t seem that windy. I had a jacket and I was comfortable. We walked along the trail into the lava cliffs. We were at the top of a cliff, looking down at the rift valley below us. I turned slightly to my left, intending to get my phone out to take a picture. The wind caught the left earpiece of the glasses and lifted them off my face before I could even register that it had happened. I started to turn. I don’t think I even reached for them. The glasses hit the rocks, skittered under the safety fence (pushed by the mischievous hand of the wind) and fell down a gap between two forty-foot monoliths of basalt. I didn’t even move. I didn’t dive for them. There wasn’t time.

I think I squeaked.

My friend said one of those things you say in a moment of crisis: “Were those your glasses?”

I was in shock. I was, seriously, in shock for about ten minutes. I didn’t know what I was going to do. (For a few seconds I was like, “Well, I can never leave Iceland now, because I can’t drive home.”) I thought of calling our guide, G, for help, and then I looked at the crevice where they had fallen and knew there was no point. They were gone. I was nearsighted in Iceland.

It was a bad few moments. Fortunately, I wasn’t alone, and my friends still had their glasses, so they could still see.

(Had I brought a pair of backup glasses? Why no, I had not. Certainly it would have been a good idea, but I honestly had not imagined a situation where I would lose my glasses.)

Much of the continental rift is a blur after that – literally, of course, but also emotionally because I had to go through the five stages of grief. Fortunately, the distance lens on my big camera brought everything into focus and I could still take pictures. And we were on a bus. The big problem was mostly that I had agreed to share the driving of the rental car and that was now impossible. Daniel let me try his prescription sunglasses, but his prescription is very different from mine, and that was not successful.

I soldiered on, and the rest of the trip was okay, but I now hold a grudge against the continental rift.

Icelandic Horses.

Icelandic Horses.


The Golden Falls – Gullfoss – is a two-tiered wall of crashing white water. The falls narrowly escaped destruction in the 1920s when a group of foreign investors wanted to dam the river and use it for hydroelectric power. Tomas Tomasson, who owned the stretch of river, refused to sell, but the investors went behind his back and cut a deal with the government. By then, Tomas had died but his daughter, Sigirdur Tomassdottir, advocated for the river, including walking to Reykjavik – some say barefoot – to speak for the waterfall and letting the river remain wild. She prevailed.

The top half of Gullfoss.

The top half of Gullfoss.



You will be drenched in mist before you can completely see the falls, and if there’s any sun, you will see rainbows everywhere you look. Adventurous souls hiked out onto the rocks beyond the lookout point. I didn’t want to do that for two reasons; 1) I had no glasses, and 2) photos would have been nearly impossible. As it was, mist already coated my lens. I was scared to use my phone camera, sure that the wind would snatch the mist-slicked rectangle out of my hands and hurl in into the golden torrent of the river, just as it had taken my glasses. All right, yes, maybe I was a little obsessed.

Gullfoss with a rainbow.

Gullfoss with a rainbow.

Parts, but not all, of this waterfall freeze in the winter.

Parts, but not all, of this waterfall freeze in the winter.


It is nearly impossible to avoid pronouncing that as “geezer” and then make geezer jokes. A more accurate pronunciation is “gay-zir.” This active geothermal field has steam vents, mineral pools, hot springs and an active geyser called Strokker. As we pulled into the parking lot, our guide warned us not to climb under the barrier ropes and not to stick our hands or other appendages into the pools, which are very hot, and some of which contain acids and other corrosives. There were warning signs everywhere. One of my favorites was: “Be aware: the water is 67 degrees C and the nearest hospital is 64 kilometers away.” I guess they were trusting tourists to assess those facts and make a good decision.

Steam vents at Geysir

Steam vents.

I also really liked this sign. I guess some people have confused mineral pools with wishing wells or fountains.

Sign warning not to throw coins into the mineral spring. "Nature does not want your money."

Nature does not want your money.

Despite the warnings, sure enough, while we were standing by one of the jewel-colored mineral pools a man ducked under the rope and stuck the tip of his finger in the water at the very edge of the pool. I would bet $100 he was from the USA. He didn’t shriek with pain, just ducked back with a smirky expression of part pride, part embarrassment, part surprise. Daniel turned toward us (away from the man) and said quietly, “I have to walk away now or I will say something inappropriate.”

I doubt it would have been inappropriate.

Lapis-colored mineral spring and pool.

Lapis-colored mineral spring and pool.

Geyers fall dormant for many reasons. An earthquake in the 1990 resulted in the dormancy of one of geysers here, but Strokker sends up a gleaming, steaming spout of hot water about every fifteen minutes.

Strokker geyser.

Strokker geyser.


Watchers doused with steam and spray from Strokker geysir.

Give me steam.

Daniel and I had discussed the phrase “tourist trap,” which he had adopted from the Cartoon Network show Gravity Falls. All three of the Golden Circle Tour stops have tourist traps – cafes, gift shops, free toilets. (The toilets in the National Park are pay toilets, and yes, they take credit cards.) Geysir has the bonanza of tourist traps, a huge building with an actual food court and a high-end “gift shop” with elite Icelandic name brands of sweaters, lap robes, jackets, jewelry, reindeer hide boots, gloves and hats. It was the Icelandic version of that street in Waikiki with Prada and Bulgari and all those name brand shops on it.

I couldn’t afford anything but I enjoyed looking.

On the ride back, our guide talked about Iceland. This post has already crossed the border into To Long; Didn’t Read so I will save his tasty morsels for another post.

It is possible to drive or bike the Golden Circle, although one couple I talked to said the GPS in their rental car got them lost. There is much more to see; more waterfalls and geothermal fields. I appreciated the amenities of the Gray Line tour, with its phone chargers and comfortable seats. Even nearsighted in Iceland, I enjoyed the sampler platter.

Lone steam vent seen from the bus window.

Lone steam vent seen from the bus window.



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Murals of Reykjavik

Reykjavik has murals. Some are city sponsored, some are commercial, meant to advertise a business, and some are volunteers, quite close to “tagging” or conventional graffiti. Each category has some outstanding items.

Rainbows, unicorns and a matching car.

Rainbows, unicorns and a matching car.

At the Skuggi Hotel, where I stayed my first two nights in Iceland, one of the counter people told me that somewhere in the city there was a rainbow unicorn mural. She didn’t know quite where, but I found it, diagonally across the street from the Reykjavik City Hall.

This is clearly tagging, but this face showed up a few places.

This is clearly tagging, but this face showed up a few places.

Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport is a stopover  for many flights heading into Europe. Sometimes the stopover can be as long as 24 hours. Clever, enterprising Icelanders saw an opportunity here, and put together a smorgasbord (yes, that’s an attempt at a Scandinavian pun) of tours for the stopped-over traveler. I’m going to provide a link to Gray Line Tours so you can get an idea; we used them and liked them, but they are not the only tour providers, by far. Here’s a sampler:

  • The Golden Circle tour, which lasts about eight hours, takes you to the continental rift, Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir, with its mineral hot springs and its active Strokker geyser.
  • A Blue Lagoon (no relation to the ancient Brooke Shields movie) tour, billed as “all day” which for an additional charge provides spa treatments.
  • A Northern Lights tour.
  • The Game of Thrones tour, which lasts about six hours, and takes you to locations from the hit HBO series.
  • Reykjavik city sightseeing tour, which lasts about three hours.
  • A beer tasting jaunt as an Icelandic brewery.
  • A foodie tour in Reykjavik, featuring Icelandic cuisine.

They should add a Murals of Reykjavik tour. I think it would sell out.

Three Men Flying. I think the letters at the bottom of this mural were meant to deface it.

Three Men Flying. I think the letters at the bottom of this mural were meant to deface it. And it is not “ugly.”

The flying men was the first mural I saw. It was one block down the street, across the street, from my hotel.

Horned demon bits the neck of a 1950s movie queen. So cinematic!

Horned demon bites the neck of a 1950s movie queen. So cinematic!

The blood-sucking demon was the first one that caught my attention, in the sense of, “Wait! There are murals in this town!” It’s on the shopping street.

Falcon mural. Don't know if this is a sanctioned mural or a volunteer.

Falcon mural. Don’t know if this is a sanctioned mural or a volunteer.

Three comic-book figures decorated panels of an exterior wall of a business on the south side of Snorribraut. I suspect, based on no information, that they represent a character or a characteristic of the business itself.

A comics character? A game figure?

A comics character? A game figure?

The game figure, at an earlier point in its life cycle?

The game figure, at an earlier point in its life cycle.

Birds on a wall.

Birds on a wall.

When Linda and I looked at this with only our eyes, we both saw figures with human heads. My excuse, and I’m sticking to it, is that the Continental Rift had eaten my glasses. Linda was wearing hers, though. It is only when we each looked at our photos that we grasped that they were birds. And, I mean, they’re obviously birds. Some strange optical illusion was happening there. It may have had something to do with where we were standing before we each moved back to take a picture.

This corner store with two dragons. It's not graffiti but I loved the subject matter and the colors.

This corner store with two dragons. It’s not graffiti but I loved the subject matter and the colors.

On our walk back from The Pond to Skulagata, I saw this. It’s a “volunteer,” but I love it. Sometimes our best art tool is words.

Seneca Falls Womens Right Conference, 1848

Seneca Falls Womens Right Conference, 1848

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Sandor and the Walled City

Meet Sandor and his pedicab, tour guide and cabbie in Tallinn, Estonia.

Meet Sandor and his pedicab, tour guide and cabbie in Tallinn, Estonia.

(By now you will have figured out that these posts are not in chronological order, but more stream-of-consciousness. Tallinn was a day trip I took before I left for Iceland.)

Meet Sandor.

Sandor is a native Estonian, born in Tartu (a university town). A friend invited him to Tallinn where he could make money driving a pedicab. His friend is now his “ladyfriend” which sounds much nicer than “friend with benefits.”

He was in a line of about eight pedicabs when I walked off the Helinki-Tallinn ferry; a boat which looked, to me, more like a cruise ship than any ferry I’d ever been on. He looked enough like my stepbrother Jay to have convincingly played Jay’s adult son. My stepmother, Faith, spoke mostly about her Scottish heritage, but she was born and grew up in Minnesota and said that half her family was Scandinavian. I felt like I was seeing those roots.

You will see more of Sandor, his arm, in at least one more photo.

Sandor offered me a pedicab tour of the entire city of Tallinn, including modern Tallinn, but I had miscalculated the amount of time I had when I purchased my ferry tickets online. I had less time there than I had hoped.

“Just the Old City,” I said.

Sandor only took Euros, and I hadn’t brought enough with me, but, surprise! He knew the exact location of an ATM and automatic money-changing station. We went there first, obeying traffic lights but weaving in and out between cars, and darting up onto the sidewalks, in a way that I think might not be actually legal, although it’s probably winked at since it’s about tourism. Tallinn, the municipal entity, really likes tourists.

My pedicab ride through the Old City was part historical tour, part Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

City walls and a watchtower.

City walls and a watchtower.

Taillin became a city in or around 1248. An earlier name for the city was Reval. Reval was a major economic power in the succeeding centuries, especially once it affiliated itself with the powerful coalition of trade and merchant cities called the Hansa or the Hanseatic League.

The city sits atop a hill overlooking the harbor. It was a walled city, and the walls still stand (or have been restored) throughout the town. One half of the pair of pillars that supported the harbor-side gate still stands.

Tallinn gate tower

Tallinn gate tower

“Can I take your picture with your cab?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Do all your passengers ask that?”
“Yes,” he said.

Buskers of Tallinn

Buskers of Tallinn


Beyond the gate pillar is a flower market. Sandor zoomed through it before I could think to get photos (the two I snapped were hopelessly blurry) and before I could gather my wits to ask him to go back. As it was, we shot through the small crowd gathered around these musicians, and I got a good photo of them.

I liked this covered walkway. Sandor thought I was missing the big picture.

I liked this covered walkway. Sandor thought I was missing the big picture.

“Why are you taking picture of that?” he said.

“Because of the shape, and the rock border.”
“What about those shapes?” he said pointing at the onion spires of the Russian Orthodox cathedral that rise right behind this covered walkway.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral with a mendicant out front.

Russian Orthodox Cathedral with a mendicant out front.

The cathedral is still in use as a church, and no interior photographs are allowed of its glowing golden beauty. Signs posted in several languages request quiet, but that was mostly being ignored. The interior was lit with both electrical light and beeswax candles, which pelted the gold leaf around the icons and on the altar railing with buttery light. Sandor went outside to take a phone call.

Across the street from the cathedral is a long pink and white building used by the Estonian parliament. They were doing work on the parking lot and the fence.

This pink and white building is a government building (the back is a stone castle)

This pink and white building is a government building (the back is a stone castle)

“I don’t feel good when I am in cathedral,” said Sandor. “Maybe because it is Russian.”

“Maybe you’re allergic to beeswax.”

This is the Old City Square. Sandor said they had trials there in the old days "and probably hanged people."

This is the Old City Square. Sandor said they had trials there in the old days “and probably hanged people.”

The relatively new name of Tallinn/Tallinna may mean “Danish town,” dating from when Estonia was under Danish rule, or perhaps, “winter town.”

View through the trees.

View through the trees.

Sandor does not like the county of Russia. “Russia is angry, violent country,” he said.  I couldn’t really argue with that statement.

Later, after the cathedral remark, Sandor began to talk about Russians who live in Estonia. He didn’t like them much, either.

Tallinn had not had a good summer according to him. “All the time it rains,” he said. “And now—you see there? Leaves on ground?” He pointed to a scrim of dried, scrolled-up leaves at the edge of the path. “Already leaves are falling and autumn comes.” This short, cool summer had made an impact on the tourist trade, and that meant that Sandor had not had a good summer either. In a good year, he said, he makes $200-500 Euros in a day (that is quite a range.) This year he was struggling to make $200, which was his “floor.” He was not happy about this.

He stopped in front of a gift shop that featured Baltic amber. Lots of shops in the Old City feature Baltic amber. He pointed to a Tiffany-style desk lamp, a mosaic of gold, orange, cream and tortoise-shell lozenges of fossilized tree-sap. “You buy that lamp? Only 4,000 Euros.”

“I can’t fit it in my luggage.”

The shop owner, who had, coincidentally, just stepped outside, said, “We can post.”

He wheeled us up to one of the three best lookout points. The views flow downward, red roofs through green leaves, all the way down to the water.

View down to the harbor. Old buildings visible, with the modern in the background.

View down to the harbor. Old buildings visible, with the modern in the background.

Sandor did not care for people who were born in Estonia but were ethnically Russian, either. We stopped at an exterior booth where I bought some flavored almonds from a blond woman. Her English was not as good as Sandor’s, something he pointed out as he pedaled us away. “You notice? Her English? She is Russian. They don’t like to learn English. They like to stay with themselves.”

This made me sad for a couple of reasons. This sounded like nationalism—or bigotry. This particular Sunday, while I was riding through the Old City in Estonia, was the weekend of the neo-Nazi riot in Charlottesville, North Carolina. (At the time I was talking to Sandor I did not know that a white-supremacist terrorist had killed a woman there.) Russia occupied Estonia; the relationship seems difficult. Still, hearing him use the same types of generalizations one hears about any ethnic group that isn’t yours saddened me.

It also worried me a little. Putin invaded Ukraine using in part the pretext that “ethnic Russians” in Ukraine were being badly treated and “asked for help.” I could picture a similar situation in Estonia, especially if it continues to grow as a tech-power.

I don’t know what it’s like for ethnically Russian Estonians. Are they seen as outsiders? Sandor certainly talked about them that way.

The city walls

The city walls– and Sandor’s arm

The walls, still, mostly circle the Old City.

The narrowest street.

The narrowest street.

Sandor showed me the narrowest street in Tallinn. Certainly, if fifteenth century nobility came riding through on their horses, people either stayed inside or climbed up out of the way. There was no “share the road” vibe going on.

Garden and wall.

Garden and wall.

“This is Deer Park. Very nice park,” he said. “This is place where people come and can say whatever they want. Free speech. They can say anything. Complain about government. Read poetry.”

Sign for the "free speech" place.

The free speech place.

We rode for a while. He raised his left hand and pointed across the street. “There is my garage,” he said.

“Is this still part of the nice park?”

“Yes,” he said, and veered off the pavement onto the crushed-stone path, particles flying left and right, pigeons squawking and waddling out of the way (although he wasn’t going fast enough to spook them into flight). “That is very beautiful tree,” he said. “It grows by water. It is silver birch, I think, but I am not tree scientist, so don’t quote me.”

(It is a silver birch.)

Silver Birch, mostly found in Estonia wetlands forests.

Silver Birch, mostly found in Estonia wetlands forests.

Estonia has a lot of trees and sells a lot of lumber, he told me.

What kinds of trees?

“Pine trees, birch,” he said. He pedaled. “Oak. We have oak trees. Chestnut trees.”

“We have hardly any chestnut trees left in the US,” I said.

“We will sell you some.”

(It turns out chestnut trees are not plentiful in Estonia. Pine, spruce and birch seem to be the big sellers as far as exports go.)

A random building in some disrepair.

A random building in some disrepair.

“Why are you taking that picture?”

“It’s interesting.”

“I have people once, they only photograph small,” he said. “I show them beautiful lookout, they say, ‘Oh, look at this rock!’”

“That sounds like it would be me.”

“I show them church, beautiful church, they say, ‘Oh, look at window frame!’”

“That’s exactly like me,” I said as I took a picture of some graffiti.

Graffiti in Tallinn

Graffiti in Tallinn

Soft-sculpture mannequin in traditional dress.

Soft-sculpture mannequin in traditional dress.

“What’s with those figures, the dolls?” I said. These showed up in several places, like mannequins, but with soft bodies, made of cloth, probably stuffed with batting.

“They show off traditional Estonian clothes.”

He got me back to the harbor with fifteen minutes to spare, and even though tipping was not encouraged in any of the countries I visited, I paid him 90 Euros instead of the 80 we’d agreed to. He didn’t say no.

Old City Harbor

Old City Harbor

A brisk pedicab ride was not what I had been expecting. As a plan for a photo safari, I don’t recommend this. Or, I would recommend it, if you explain to your cabbie that you are going to want to make stops at random. (I was worried about the amount of time I had.) As an experience in a city that was new to me, Sandor’s wild ride was wonderful.

I waved good-bye and got back on the Viking mini-cruise ship, and headed back to Helsinki.


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Videy Island

View from the Videy Island terminal office of the harbor.

View of the harbor from the Videy Island terminal office.

The ferry ride from the Videy terminal to Videy island was the most surprising of the day trips. In one of our pre-trip planning conversations Linda said that the Videy ferry ride provided one of the best opportunities to see whales and seabirds. When Linda and Daniel arrived, I had already seen puffins and whales but I was certainly up for seeing more.

It took us a while to find the ferry site; we got to the terminal area, east of the Old Harbor, quite easily but this is also a berth for some cruise ships and, I suspect, a couple of larger ferries, and we drove around for a few minutes looking for the Videy office. It faked us out; it was a small one-room building tucked into a corner, looking out over a narrow channel at a lush green spit of land that hosted a picturesque building. I took some pictures while we waited for the ferry, which was quite small. They loaded us on. There were seats atop the cockpit and the boat, fully loaded, would probably hold about 20 people. We chose to hang out on deck. The little boat backed up, veered in a circled, and motored forward to a landing on the spit. It took about ten minutes. I thought maybe we picked up more passengers before heading off to Videy.

We watched people disembarking, and Daniel turned to the young woman with a bike who was standing next to us. “Is this Videy Island?”

“I hope so,” she said.

It was Videy Island.

Videy Island

Videy Island

(You’re asking yourself, “Why didn’t Marion look at a map?” I had looked at a map. It would be accurate to say I hadn’t paid attention to the map.

As for the whale and bird watching, the Videy Island ferry also leaves from the Old Harbor. From that location you come all the way across the bay, and bird-watching would be excellent. I don’t know that you’d see whales, but the odds of seeing dolphins would be very good.)



Videy holds quite a lot of Icelandic history. It was the site of a Catholic monastery from about the year 1,000 until the Wars of Religion, when the Danish king declared Protestantism the religion of the land and evicted the monks (Iceland was a Danish possession). Later various political personages built homes on the island. It is mostly flat, shaped like a stretched out figure eight, with three low rolling hills; a nesting place for seagulls and arctic terns. It is filled with geese, and goose scat. I mean filled; watch your step.

Memorial to Skuli Magnusson, considered to be the founding father of modern Reykjavik.

Memorial to Skuli Magnusson, considered to be the founding father of modern Reykjavik.

The picturesque building is the museum cum restaurant, and next to it is the small painted church.

Exterior of the Church

Church Interior

Church Interior

We walked to the north side to see Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace tower. If Linda hadn’t told me this was a monument, I would have assumed it was a water cistern. Up close, you can see that it is made of glossy white tiles with the words “Imagine Peace,” in various languages, stamped on each one. Our guide told us that in the fall/winter, this monument is impressive indeed. From October 9, John Lennon’s birthday, through December 7, the date he was murdered, lights in the base of the memorial shine up into the sky, providing a beacon of peace and hope. The guide said that Yoko Ono chose Iceland in part because so much of their energy comes from geothermal. No one, Ono said, has fought a war over that energy source.

Imagine Peace tower monument, designed by Yoko Ono

Imagine Peace tower monument, designed by Yoko Ono

"Imagine Peace."

“Imagine Peace.”

The north end of the island also has a boathouse. At the south end, the remains of a couple of homesteads remain; on two occasions, different people tried to set up fishing operations on the island. Neither was a success. The second one fell victim to the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s.

Videy Island shore with sea cave.

Videy Island shore with sea cave.

From there we drove back to the Old Harbor and took a boat ride to see puffins. The puffin tours were winding down. The adult birds are about to go back to the deep ocean where they spend eight months of the year. At Akurey we saw none, but our captain took us farther out to another island, and there they were.

Daniel on the puffin-watching boat.

Daniel on the puffin-watching boat.

Puffin on the water.

Puffin on the water.

Puffin in the air.

Puffin in the air.

I had coffee (Linda and Daniel had nothing) at Café Haiti, which is along the waterfront of the Old Harbor. We admired Harpa some more. Daniel tried Icelandic fish and chips from a food truck. He declared that they were “okay.” Icelandic fish and chips is a “thing,” which should come as no surprise in a country whose number one industry is fishing.

Daniel samples food-truck fish and chips.

Fish and Chips

Videy Island Shoreline

Videy shoreline

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Culture Night: Our Skulagata Friend

Hallgrimmkirkja Cathedral

Hallgrimmkirkja Cathedral

Every year Reykjavik celebrates Culture Night on the Saturday closest to August 18. August 18 is the day that Icelanders commemorate the incorporation of Rejkjavik as a city in 1786. (There was a settlement in Reykjavik since 900, but this was the establishment of a city as business center.) In 2017, August 19 was Culture Night, which actually starts in the morning and runs all day, with free admission to all museums and national/city galleries, plenty of events like live music, drama performances, 10K runs, walks and bike races… lots of food, face-painting and fun. The buses also run for free all day.

This is one great day to be in Reykjavik. In addition to the music and the sights, there was some waffle-themed event, which we missed, and an event with a pancake theme that we also missed, although we stopped at Café Loki, (because how could we not?) and ordered a pancake plate as our own event.

And there was our Skulagata friend, Khamil.

Mosaic of Reykjavik, Linda and Daniel in foreground.

Mosaic of Reykjavik, Linda and Daniel in foreground.

Decode is a genetics research project, owned/funded 100% by Amgen Corp. Decode takes advantage of some unusual features of Iceland to study genetic markers connected with certain diseases. Iceland has an isolated gene pool and familiar historical records that go back more than 900 years, making it easy for researchers to identify and isolate data (fewer variables). 166,000 Icelanders have donated their DNA to the Decode project. That number becomes even more impressive when you think that the population of Iceland is about 330,000.

Decode only opens its doors to the public once or twice a year, and Culture Night was one of those times. We all wanted to go to the open house. As we were discussing our desires for what to see on Saturday, there was a conversation that, as I recall, went something like this:

Daniel:  According to their website, it’s at Skulagata 8. [That’s how I heard it.]

Me: Skulagata. I know that street.

I did know that street. I’d walked down part of Skulagata every morning the first three days I was in Iceland, to go down to the waterfront and Gamla Hofnin, the old harbor. I didn’t remember seeing a place called Decode (I did remember a Domino’s Pizza) but there were several severe office buildings and it seemed possible Decode had been in there.

Daniel:  It looks like a short street. It shouldn’t be hard to find.

REflections of the waterfront in a glass office building.


It was a short street. On Saturday, after we parked, we walked its full length and found no Skulagata 8. Along the way we theorized why we couldn’t find it. Once we stopped to discuss our next steps. A local man made the mistake of coming out of his apartment at just that moment and we pounced on him. Did he know where Skulagata 8 was?

Our innocent victim did not look like most Icelanders I had seen. Many or most have light hair (although reddish brown is common), fair skin and most have light colored eyes. This is a not a surprise in a country with an isolated genetic pool. Our helper was a slight, slender man with brown skin, brown hair and sparkly brown eyes. He didn’t know where Skulagata 8 was; he thought he had heard of Decode. He pointed out that several buildings that faced the water (and Skulagata) were actually addressed to the nearest cross street. He wished us good luck.

Daniel had a theory that Skulagata was actually a longer street than we had first thought, and that it continued across Snorrabraut, closer to where we had parked. We crossed Snorrabraut and wandered up a couple of streets that were not Skulagata. By the way, all this pedestrian to-and-froing was easy and safe since many of the streets down to the waterfront were closed for the holiday events. We did not find the second length of Skulagata. That’s logical, since there isn’t one.

We came back and wandered aimlessly in a courtyard area on Skulagata for a little bit, when we saw a slender dark-haired man walking across the parking lot. He saw us and waved. “No luck, eh?” he said.

We said no, no luck. He told us to have a good day.

Another swing back across Snorrabraut with a detour to check out Escape Reykjavik, a live action game, when it occurred to us to check the website again, and this was when we discovered that the address was not Skulagata 8. It was Sturlagata 8, at the other end of town.

We Are Barcelona

We Are Barcelona

Along the way we stopped at the Koloportid, where Linda bought a sweater and Daniel and I sampled Kaestur Hakarl. (Of the three of us, Linda made the best choice there.) We had lunch and walked through a town square where people were starting to gather. At the statue in the center, people had started a spontaneous memorial for those killed in Barcelona. We walked along Lake Tjornin, commonly called The Pond, and into the university district where we found Decode. They were not offering any information about their project (apparently they never do; they refer people to the website) but they had refreshments and an art show.

Daniel and Linda and the chess boards in the common room at Decode.

Daniel and Linda and the chess boards in the common room at Decode.

Daniel has a way of navigating, even with a map, that I would call urban arithmetical. It’s perfectly logical; just determine the distance and the direction. If you have to go two blocks east and four blocks south, it doesn’t really matter in which order you do those things. There’s an element of approximation; often you are going “roughly” four blocks. And this system can get stymied by unexpected construction or cul de sacs. It’s perfect for walking though. And we walked. A lot. I was somewhat skeptical, but Daniel’s navigation was good.

Lake Tjornin, also called The Pond.

Lake Tjornin, also called The Pond.

Swan and ducks in the pond.

Swan and ducks in the pond.

Across the street from Reykjavik’s soaring Lutheran cathedral, the Hallsgrimkirkja, we stopped at Café Loki for something to eat.

Cafe Loki, Traditional Icelandic Cuisine.

Cafe Loki, Traditional Icelandic Cuisine.

These WOW bikes are the same color as its airplanes.

These WOW bikes are the same color as its airplanes.

Replenished, we ambled down Frakkastigur, through a lively, boho-arty neighborhood, across Laugavegur, which I call the Shopping Street, down toward the harbor until we ended up, again, on Skulagata. As we drifted toward the car, our interest was snagged by a tiny, eclectic gallery/thrift shop and we went in.

Mural/tagging on Frakkastigur

Mural/tagging on Frakkastigur

Art Exhibition Gallery, home of the golden cow.

Art Exhibition Gallery, home of the golden cow.

“Well, hello!” said someone sitting across from an ornate, velvet loveseat. It was our Skulagata friend! He was watching the gallery while the owner ran an errand.

When you meet someone for three times in one day, it seems necessary to introduce yourselves, so we did. His name was Khamil, he was from Iran, and he sells Persian style hangings and floor runners. While we were talking, Linda mentioned that she is a film-maker and Khamil said the owner had worked on films, most recently with Ridley Scott. Linda talked about her current project, a film on near-death experiences, and she and Khamil fell into a dynamic conversation because Khamil knew of a man in Iran who was declared dead for some quite-long time period, like fifteen minutes, and came back to life. There was much exchanging of business cards and e-mails.

The owner returned and we met him. He said he had worked on Prometheus, but he seemed like a nice man so we didn’t hold that against him.

The cramped place filled with folk art, new art, old knick-knacks and gew-gaws, watercolors and old oils, with a large golden Icelandic cow sculpture… and the three appearances of Khamil, our Skulagata friend, made me think for a minute that I’d fallen in to a Neil Gaiman story.

It wasn’t Icelandic folklore or myth, but maybe, like the odor of sulfur in the hot water in Reykjavik, there is just a whiff of magic in the air on Culture Night.

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Warning: This describes a food that many will find disgusting.

Kaestur Hakarl is a traditional Icelandic food, one that kept the Vikings alive for generations in the early centuries of settlement. It is made from Greenland shark, which is beheaded, buried in a shallow trench and weighted down with stones for as long as three months. Then the shark meat is cut into long strips and dried. Hakarl is served in tiny cubes and is considered by some a delicacy… and by some a dare.

The alley where we tried our hakarl.

The alley where we tried our hakarl.

The texture isn’t really dry; it’s more like smoked fish. Daniel told Villi, our Air B&B host, that he wanted to try it as part of his Icelandic experience. Villi laughed and said, “Just don’t bring it into the apartment. The smell!” Linda quickly added a codicil that he could not have it in the rental car either.

Daniel finally found some hakarl at the Kolaportid flea market near Gamla Hofnin, the Old Harbor. We went there so Linda could find an Icelandic sweater. At the adjoining fish market we found pieces of hakarl, served in a tiny plastic tasting cup, complete with a toothpick. It cost $500 ISK (kroner)—about five bucks US. Daniel asked if I wanted to try it. Well, why not? We stepped out into the alley to sample this traditional food. Linda had zero interest in trying it.

Based on my experience, if you are going to try hakarl on your visit to Iceland, here are 3 tips.

1) Don’t.

2) Do not smell it before you try to eat it.

3) Have drinking water immediately available.


Public water fountain.

Have a quantity of drinking water available.

The texture, as I said, was pretty firm, a little silky to the touch. The first taste to hit my tongue was rot-like, no surprise, since the “fermentation process” when the shark is buried is basically rotting. My gag reflex kicked in. I mastered it, but it was a close thing. A second later in the taste curve that is hakarl came the 10% of the experience that was pleasant. A savory, umami flavor trickled over my tongue and down the back of my throat, right before the taste of rot came rushing back. Before I started retching the rot taste was swept away by a tsunami of ammonia that rose clear up into my sinuses, making my nostrils prickle and my eyes water.

“Hmm,” Daniel said, “there is an aftertaste.”

A minute later he said, “There is still an aftertaste. I think it is coating the inside of my mouth.”

I finished gulping water and handed my bottle to him. He polished it off. After some consideration, he threw the remaining three bites away.

This strange food-preparation process came about, according to various sites, because there was very little protein available to the Norse settlers. Greenland sharks were plentiful and large, but their meat, unprocessed, is toxic to humans. The burying process forces the toxic fluids out of the shark flesh.

Fermented and dried flesh also might have traveled better for when Icelandic settlers were out on Viking raids.

Now it’s a yummy taste treat.

I can say with… pride? I guess? that I ate traditional Icelandic rotting shark. I’ve done it, so you don’t have to.

In case I haven’t done this taste experience justice, here is a link to Kaestur Hakarl.

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How my Day Went

My Tuesday started with my making a clever phone call to Spouse, sure I’d catch him at lunch. I caught him at midnight instead because I still hadn’t quite got the time change down right. There is no excuse for this problem since my cell phone has both times on it, but in my hotel room with the blackout curtains drawn, I couldn’t see the am/pm designation. I not only felt like an incompetent, I felt like an inconsiderate incompetent since Spouse has to work in the morning. And yes, he answered the call because he thought something had gone wrong (otherwise, who would call at midnight?)

While I was in the shower someone called me. It was an Iceland number. I don’t know anyone in Iceland. I called it back and the call dropped. Probably one of those telemarketers, I thought, imagining black-marketeers headquartered in Chechnya or Ukraine or someplace. While I was waiting for my taxi to take me to the Old Harbor for the harbor tour I had signed up for, it rang again. I started to answer it but my taxi pulled up so I ended the call. The cabbie dropped me at the Old Harbor and I walked up to Reykjavik by Boat, looking at my messages. As I went through the door I saw the message they had just sent.

“You are Marion. I tried to call you,” the young woman with the long brown hair said. I nodded, reading the text she had sent about three minutes earlier.

Hello dear Marion. We are sorry we have to cancel your tour. We will refund your bank card in the next few hours.

“We have no guide today,” she said. “Because you prepaid we will restore your balance to your bank card. Sorry.”

“Will there be another tour, maybe tomorrow?” The rest of my trip was pretty well booked but it didn’t hurt to ask.

She shook her head, looking up. “We will not have a guide, he won’t be in all week.”

“I hope he’s okay,” I said.

She looked down and I couldn’t see her expression. “He is fine,” she said.

At the door I looked at the chalkboard outside. They listed two other tours, starting at 11:15 and 11:30; Puffin Express and Whales and Puffins. I ducked back inside. “Is there room on the other tours?”

“Yes, both have room.”

“I’ll do the puffins and whales,” I said.
Wake in Reykjavik Harbor

Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, coming into shore only to mate, lay eggs and raise young. They are not spectacular flyers. Well, that’s not fair, I mean they can fly, but they have stubby wings and they have to work at it. What they are spectacular at is diving.

Puffin in FlightDevon was our captain, and along with me there was Siggi, Frances and Frances’s father  (they were German); I have forgotten his name. I think Frances was about 19 or 20; I assumed that her dad and Siggi, who is Icelandic and very friendly, had been friends since youth, maybe through school or work. Siggi lives and works in Reykjavik and has taken some time off to spend with his touring friends.

After we left the island of Akurey and the puffins we headed up the coast, back towards the airport. Devon had set us to watching the horizon for signs of whales. The sea was not rough, but this was a small boat, and the bow-wake spattered us. My glasses were spotted with salt water drops and I couldn’t unzip my coat to wipe them on my blouse, because I would fall over if I let go of the railing. The sky was seventeen shades of silver and gray and the  water looked like molten lead. We weren’t slamming down into the troughs the way a small boat can sometimes, but a couple of times I was staring right down into the base of the trough, and sometimes I was getting pressed backward, a low steady ache in my right shoulder as I gripped the railing. I wasn’t necessarily cold because I had dressed in layers, but I couldn’t really feel my fingers, either. I wanted to be the first person to see a whale.

Puffin on rocks

I had no idea how long we motored up the coast. The mountains in front of me, distant, were shrouded in cloud. I said out loud in my head (as one does), “I do not want to be the first one to spot a whale. I want Frances to be the first one to spot a whale. I will do my best to scan for whales without an attachment to the outcome because that is a very Zen thing to do.” And I kept telling myself that.

Clouds over mountains in Iceland

After a while I gripped the vertical railing with my left hand, and hand-over-hand made my way into the cabin where Siggi and Devon were talking. The tour is until you get to see whales, or three hours, whichever comes first, and we were nearly fifty miles from Reykjavik. It sounds like I was disappointed, and I was, but it wasn’t a crushing disappointment. The sky, the ocean was beautiful; salt spray clung to my lips, and the puffins had been beautiful. And I had a story.

I sat down on the padded seat. Devon said, “There have been two big whales seen near here today.”

“What kinds of whales come here?”

“There are humpback,” –he pronounced it “hoompback.”  “There are dolphins, there are minke whales.”

Frances hand-over-handed her way into the cabin. “There is a whale!” she said. She flung out her arm, and I mean really, in a way I associate with Victorian actresses only it was perfectly accurate. “There is a whale!”

And there was.

Tail flukes of a humpbacked whale, off Icelandic coast.

There were two, with a cluster of whale watching boats monitoring them. They surfaced and blew, and then one breached, coming out of the water, rotating its body and plunging back into its home element like, to anthropomorphize, a kid falling backward into a swimming pool.

I missed that shot. I missed the next time it did it, too, because my battery light began to flash on the camera. I had brought a second battery. Usually, changing the battery takes about twenty seconds, but the wake caused by the submerging whale was making the little boat buck and swing. It probably took me nearly a minute to swap in the fully-charged battery. I told myself it didn’t matter. I would have some good photos (some nice curved-back and tail shots), and I would always have the memories, right?
Spout of water where whale landed.

And then this happened.
Humpbacked whale spyhopping

The two whales seemed unconcerned about the boats that followed them. They would stay near the surface for several minutes, then dive. Humpbacks go down to the seabed and gouge out a great mouthful of sea-bottom. Their bodies sift out soil, gravel and shell and they digest the organic matter like tiny shrimp. We were following pretty closely, though, closer than I think we would be allowed to in the states; and the crazy people in the aptly named Ultimate Whale Watching Zodiac raft, all bundled up in their red exposure suits, got even closer. Once, the whales submerged and resurfaced a few minutes later on the port side of our boat, so we were between them and the Zodiac. I thought Ultimate Whale Watchers had gotten too close, but a moment later the whales dived again and came up between our boats. They coasted along for several minutes before submerging.

Ultimate Whale Watching Zodiac raft.We watched them for about forty minutes before Devon got a call on the radio that it was time to return to port.

On the way back, a school of dolphins paced us for four of five minutes, and Frances went into the back and leaned over, her elbow on the rail, her chin in her hand, watching for them. Siggi and Devon conversed, and when we back at the dock, reeling slightly from our case of “sea legs,” Siggi said in English, “You may have had the best whale watching experience of the summer. That is what he told me.”

Tail FlukeTail Fluke

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