Reykjavik: Color me charmed

Iceland is a small island with a small population: exactly 320,044 people as of June 30, 2012, in fact.

Icelandic population

A running count of the population at the Hamburger Factory in Reykjavik

So it makes sense that Reykjavik, its biggest city, is a capital with a charming, small-town feel—kind of like Amsterdam (pop. 800,000). Although two-thirds of the Icelandic population lives in and around Reykjavik, many head to the countryside during the summer to work in tourism. (One such Reykjavik resident was our Zodiac boat captain, whom you met in a previous post.)

Still, Reykjavik felt far from empty during our visit. That’s because this city is packed—with style, creativity, and color. Just check out these houses in downtown Reykjavik!

Neon house Reykjavik

Neon. Love!

One striking similarity I found between Reykjavik and Manila: the use of corrugated iron (a.k.a. GI or galvanized iron) sheets as a building material.

Turquoise and green Reykjavik

In Reykjavik, the choice is dictated by the harsh weather; back home it’s simply a matter of economics… which makes our GI homes look totally third world quite different. How I wish Manila could pull off this look!

Bright blue house Reykjavik

That similarity aside, the pristine white trim, clean lines and enamel house numbers give Reykjavik homes that distinct Scandinavian vibe.

House and numbers

In addition to the houses, much of the color in downtown Reykjavik comes from street art, which is everywhere.

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Thinking of home

It’s hard to continue with the rest of my Iceland posts when Manila is under siege from the rain.

Apocalyptic panorama by Adrian Dungo, via Facebook

With 172 mm of actual rainfall and no letup seen until Thursday, home is the focus of my thoughts and prayers. My social media feeds are filled with photos of flooded streets, calls for rescue, and stories that seem all too familiar. (Have we really learned nothing from Ondoy? It seems prediction systems are better and response times are faster now, but not by much.) It doesn’t seem appropriate to be all chipper and colorful on the blogosphere while all this is happening—much like it seems inconsiderate to order in for food and send the poor delivery boys out in this madness! People, please.

I may be far away but the power of social media makes this feel immediate. While I’m thankful my family and close friends are safe and dry, there are many thousands who are not. If you’re back home, here’s how to help. And if you’re back home, I’m thinking of you. Please stay safe and take care.

I will continue with the last of the Iceland posts (Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon) on Thursday. Till then, please say a prayer for Manila.

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Iceland: Fun with glaciers (Part 2)

Allow me to continue with my list of fun things you can do with glaciers in Iceland. So far, we’ve covered walking on, drinking from, and finding wildlife on a glacier. Here’s a couple of things you can do with a glacier’s many smaller offspring: those glistening, floating chunks of fun called icebergs.

4) Drift among them. When the glacier Breiðamerkurjökull receded from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, it left behind a lagoon known as Jökulsárlón, now the deepest lake in Iceland. (You may recognize it from A View to a Kill, Die Another Day, Tomb Raider or Batman Begins.) Floating in this lagoon are chunks of ice that have broken off the glacier, and you can take a boat cruise to find yourself bobbing alongside them.

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Marlon and I chose to take an hour-long Zodiac boat tour, which includes floatation suits and life jackets. The smaller size of the boat allows a more intimate group, and enables you to weave in and out of the icebergs more easily.

Jokulsarlon_Zodiac boat

That way, you enjoy a chance to get up close and personal to some truly impressive creations of nature.

Jokulsarlon boat cruise captain

Uh, I meant the icebergs.

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Iceland: Fun with glaciers (Part 1)

A little over 11 percent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, and it’s impossible to miss them. Sticking their tongues out at us from various vantage points on the Ring road (they really are called glacier tongues, by the way), glaciers beckoned with the promise of fun, adventure and great photos.

Glacier

It was my first time to ever see a glacier, so I could hardly resist its call. As I soon discovered, there are many fun things you can do with glaciers in Iceland, such as:

1) Walk on a glacier.  As a decidedly non-athletic person of a nationality that hates walking, this to me is the pinnacle of all the things I could conceivably do involving a glacier. Skaftafell, the gateway to the Vatnajökull National Park, seemed like the perfect place to give glacier walking a try. Vatnajökull is the largest glacier outside of the polar regions, but that wasn’t very relevant to me; I mean, I wasn’t about to walk the entire thing. Instead, Marlon and I signed up for a 2.5-hour easy glacier hike with Glacier Guides—a 1-2 out of 5 on the difficulty scale, which seemed just about my speed.

For 6,900 ISK (47.50 EUR or 58 USD), Glacier Guides outfitted us with an ice pick, hiking shoes (because mine were not very sensible)…

Glacier walk_pick and shoes

… and crampons, metal contraptions that you step into and strap onto your feet for traction on the ice.

Glacier walk_crampons

Our Icelandic guide Jon (which must be the most common name in Iceland) took us in this big yellow bus…

Glacier walk_bus

… to a point where we started a 20-minute hike over sandy, shifting and rocky terrain towards the Faljökull glacier. I felt like such a wuss, because I fell several times during the hike, not to mention huffed and puffed so hard on my short legs that I felt like I was going to die. This was really not a good look, especially when everyone else seemed to be taking to this terrain like young mountain goats.

Glacier walk_hike to the glacier

The only thing that kept me going was how embarrassing it would be to bow out of the glacier walk… before the glacier walk actually started! It later turned out that there was a very good reason I struggled with this hike, which I will share later on.

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On the road in Iceland

Driving in Iceland is an experience in itself. Although Marlon and I kept pretty much to the Ring road (which encircles the entire island), the drive was no less stunning as the destinations themselves. Iceland’s weather and scenery changed so frequently, it seemed we would find ourselves in a different country (even a different planet) in a matter of miles and minutes.

Take, for example, our first fifteen minutes out of Reykjavik: a bleak, driving rain…

Out of Reykjavik

… which, in another fifteen minutes (before I had time to get thoroughly dismayed), gave way to green pastures dappled with sun, dotted with yellow flowers, and populated by some of Iceland’s most famed inhabitants.

Icelandic horse2

Oh, hai.

Icelandic horses are fascinating creatures: brought to Iceland by the first settlers in the 9th-10th centuries, they’ve seen little inter-breeding and are the only breed of horse on the island. No other horse is allowed to enter the country and once a horse leaves, it can never come back (sniff). They look small, graceful and gentle but are reputed to be long-lived and sturdy (to withstand these ever-changing conditions, they must be!).

Icelandic horse

We saw many, many Icelandic horses on the road. I especially loved it when they would stop to look at us when we got out of the car to take their photos, and when they would walk right alongside the car while being led back to their farms after a day of riding or grazing.

The other equally abundant form of wildlife on the road in Iceland?

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