Whether I'm trying my best to not fall off an Icelandic glacier, or standing in an ice-cold stream in Austria, or watching a lioness snack on a zebra on the African plains, or (more often) just sitting at my desk overhearing 16-year-old girl gossip, every day's a holly-day for me.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Day 13: Bless, Iceland

“Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.”  Gustave Flaubert

"Bless" means "goodbye" in Icelandic, which I think is really cool. And  appropriate.

We left Akureyri today and are back in Reykjavik. Erika and Peter took us to a really nice farewell dinner at a restaurant on top of the performing arts center...white tablecloth kind of place. Had some great conversation with Erika and the kids at our table. A great way to end the trip. Now I have to figure out how to get 60 pounds of stuff into a bag and convince the airlines that it's actually only 50 pounds.

It's been a GREAT trip! The kids have been the most polite, helpful, kind group of kids I've ever traveled with.  I'm so grateful to everyone involved in this trip, especially Cathy. What an amazing thing she has done by starting this program for SBISD. Cathy is retiring and will be missed more than she will ever know...especially by me. I've learned so much from her about being a great teacher and a great human being.

Top 5 Things I Will Miss About Iceland:

1. Its landscape. I loved riding in the bus because around every bend was something more impressive than the last impressive site.
2. The people...they're beautiful inside and out and seem to be a laid-back, friendly, accepting bunch.
3. Clean air, clean water, the bluest sky I've ever seen.
4. The Blue Lagoon. I'd go there once a week if I lived here.
5. Peter and Erika and Tota (and her dinners!) and Runnar...they made the trip.

Top 5 Things (in no particular order) I've Missed While We Were Gone:

1. Darkness...I'm a night owl by nature. The perpetual daylight has its perks, but it definitely threw me.
2. My bed and sleeping in real sheets, not a sleeping bag.
3. Everyday luxuries that we take for granted...plenty of electrical outlets, Netflix (they don't have Netflix in Europe...well, not legally), grocery stores that have every possible item imaginable all in one place, reasonably priced goods and services (have I mentioned that Iceland is expensive?!)...
4. Ice! The irony!! No place in Europe (or any foreign country that I've visited) uses ice the way we do. And certainly not "Sonic ice!" I realize this seems ridiculous, but for an ice addict like me, it's an issue.
5. Being able to talk to family or friends anytime I want to.

The reason I love to travel so much is because I get to learn so many new things, see things in a new light, hear perspectives different than mine, meet new and interesting people, and be reminded that although we may live our daily lives in very different ways and speak different languages, we are really not that different when it comes down to it. Most importantly, traveling makes me appreciate home and makes me realize how very fortunate I am.

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”  Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Day 10-12: Aka-ray-ray, AKA Akureyri

Peter and the kids pronounced Akureyri "Aka-ray-ray" so many times  that I forgot how to say it correctly. Regardless of the pronunciation, it is the second largest city in Iceland. It is on the northeastern side of the island, on the harbor and is surrounded by beautiful mountains and streams and the bluest sky I’ve ever seen.  The color in the picture above is not altered...that's really how blue it is! I asked Cathy if she thought the sky really is bluer here or if we just notice it more because we’re on vacation and taking photos. She said she thinks it looks bluer because the air is so much cleaner. I concurred.

Saturday morning, we awoke to a cold, drizzly day and set out at 8:30 for whale-watching in Husavik, a really cute harbor town (I’m starting to figure out that ALL the towns in Iceland are “harbor towns”) about an hour and a half from Akyreyri. We boarded the boat around 10:00, put on some very stylish bright orange rain coats and set out for sea. Within 15 minutes, we briefly saw a humpback whale, followed by two more within an hour or so. We were able to get a few decent pictures, although we weren’t super close to them. The highlight of the trip was seeing a blue whale, the largest animal on earth. Alex was disappointed that he didn’t “jump out of the water and do tricks for us,” but I think we all realized how lucky we were to see one of only 10,000 blue whales in existence. Several of the kids were unable to enjoy the whale-watching as much as others because of sea-sickness, but as soon as we got back to land and had some hot soup and bread, everyone was fine.

 About 15 minutes from the harbor, we stopped at the “fossil cliffs,” an area right on the coast that has a mountain stream running into the Atlantic, surrounded by cliffs that are filled with fossils and rock sediment. The kids ate lunch right on the beach. We could see the layer of rock and fossils throughout the walls of the cliffs, and the kids explored for a while, walking the stream, rolling down a grassy hill and playing with the dogs that belonged to the land owner. An old, abandoned warehouse sits right over the beach, near the stream, and the owner is turning it into a coffee shop and hostel. I definitely want to order a latte there someday.

We left the cliffs after an hour or so and drove for another hour to the largest waterfall in Europe, Dettifoss. It was cold and rainy and a bit of a hike from the parking lot to the falls, but worth it. The falls were ridiculously big and even more ridiculously loud. Erika walked REALLY close to the edge of the falls to get a good shot, and I lost a year or two off my life watching her. I had to look away it made me so nervous.  We didn’t stay long because many of the kids had forgotten raincoats and/or protection for their camera, but I was very happy we’d made the trek to see the falls.

See that tiny dot of a person in the picture above, right on the edge of the rocks? That's Erika!

We made one more stop at a crater/lake area, took a few pictures and headed back to Akureyri. We got warmed up/cleaned up, had dinner and spent more time downloading/editing/blogging before bed.

On Sunday, we drove about 30 minutes outside the city to a beautiful horse farm for a two hour horseback ride. It was, in my opinion, the prettiest landscape we’d seen yet and we had PERFECT weather. It was a bit chilly, but the sky was indescribably blue and the sun was shining. I had a horse named Cokey who was generally an “easy” horse, until we started trotting. He got pretty enthusiastic about trotting, which made me nervous. The ride leader, Miriam, seemed a bit skeptical when I told her I was from Texas but had only ridden horses a handful of times. I explained that not all Texans ride horses and she laughed. Miriam is a college student from Germany and is in Iceland for the summer, working on the horse farm. She and I had some very interesting conversation about our respective homes, school systems, politics, etc. She spoke very good English and explained that she had visited both Kentucky and Maryland as part of a student exchange program. I told her my last name and although she giggled at my pronunciation of it, she explained that it is very common in Germany, although it usually has two n’s on the end. She lives in Minez, which is in the south of Germany and has many “wine yards.” She invited me to come visit, and I told her I would. ‘Hope you were serious, Miriam, because I’ll be showing up on your doorstep someday! Of course, we told her she needed to come visit Texas, as well.

When we got back to the stables, they offered us hot chocolate and pastries and let us take pictures on the property for a while. The kids immediately started a photo shoot with the lambs on the property, as well as the dogs and horses. We didn’t want to leave, but had to get back for lunch and exploring Akyreyri.

Our driver, Runnar...he's a boat captain, an excellent bus driver and apparently,
 a horse whisperer, as well. 

 After lunch at the hostel, we set out to explore the city for a little while. The kids broke into groups of four again and were given a photo assignment/scavenger hunt again, as well as time to shop for souvenirs. Cathy and I went with Peter and a group of kids to 66 North, the Icelandic version of REI, but just clothing. Peter arranged a 30% discount for us, which was much needed. The clothes are awesome, but not at all cheap. I got a $30 t-shirt, which was a bargain. It’s one of the only things I’ve bought the entire trip because everything (clothes, food, cosmetics…) is VERY expensive. A pair of wool socks is usually between $18 and $25. The jacket that I REALLY wanted at 66 North (which was essentially a zip up hoodie) was $160, after our discount. Thus, my t-shirt purchase. We asked Tota if the salaries were commiserate with the price of goods in Iceland, and she emphatically said no. She also reminded us that citizens pay a flat tax of approximately 37%.

We went in several other touristy shops, had coffee in a local coffee shop/hostel and walked back to the hostel in time for dinner and more uploading, caption writing, blogging, etc.. So hard to believe the trip is almost over. It seems like it’s been two months since I’ve been in Houston, but it’s also flown by. We’ve packed in a LOT into 12 days.

On Monday morning, we ate breakfast and then listened to the students present their final assignment for Nat Geo. Each student had to pick one photo and write a complete caption for it. I enjoyed seeing their chosen photos and hearing their captions. They’ve all done great work. We loaded up the buses and left 20 minutes EARLY, headed back to Reykjavik.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Day 8-9: HOP!


The kids love pronouncing Hofn and saying it over and over again because the Icelandic pronounciation sort of sounds like “hop” said in an English accent. And they’ve taken to actually hopping as they say it. On Wednesday morning, we started breakfast at 7:30 because Gianluca was leaving at 8:30 to go back to Switzerland. We ate and saw him off and then waited for the plan for the day. We intended to go the local fish-packing plant but when Peter called, we found out that the man who typically gave tours had retired, and he was really the only one who could do it. Calls were made to try to find him, but no such luck. Peter asked if we could come anyway just to take pictures, but he was told no. Apparently, the packing plant had just installed new machinery and it’s the latest and greatest, high tech model. The packing plant powers that be feared that we might be stealing industry secrets by taking all those pictures. Peter pointed out that if someone actually DID want to steal industry secrets in a fish packing plant, posing as student photographers would be an ingenious cover. Sooooo…Plan B was to go to the glacier museum. We called and the glacier museum was closed. Soooooooooooooo…Plan C was to just walk around and see what trouble we could find.

We walked to the harbor, stopping along the way for plenty of photos. Around 11:30, Erika and Peter started scoping out lunch options and found what I’ve determined to be the closest thing to a Sonic in Iceland. Erika first took us to a grassy area near the restaurant and we had a little circle time (actually just to kill some time before lunch), which involved some yoga moves and some dance moves. A tourist bus came by and took pictures of us, thinking we were the local yoga class, I’m sure. When we stood up, three older men who’d been watching from their front stoop clapped for us. We then went into Sonic and ordered hot dogs, hamburgers, sandwiches and milkshakes. As I’ve mentioned before, the most recommended food in all of Iceland is the hot dog, which they call “pony dogs” – NOT because they are made of horse…believe me, I asked. I’d already had one on the trip, but it was a gas station hot dog and pretty disappointing. I ordered one here in hopes of hot dog redemption. This one came through. The hot dogs are lamb, but you would never know it. A loaded dog comes with raw chopped onion, bacon bits, “toasted onions” – which are basically crunched up fried onions like we put on the top of green bean casserole – a sweet brown sauce of some sort that we can’t quite identify and mustard. I got mine with everything but the raw onion, and it lived up to the Iceland pony dog reputation.

After lunch, we assigned the kids groups of four and told them to go explore the booming metropolis of Hofn. We gave them a photo scavenger hunt to complete and told them to meet back at the hostile by 4:00. The best part of it all…no GPS (b/c it costs too much to use their phones)! So they have to read real, actual, printed maps. Peter and Erika set off for some supplies and roamed around the area in case the kids needed them, and Cathy and I also just walked around and explored before heading back to the hostile for a much-needed nap. I fell asleep in about 30 seconds and woke up an hour later not knowing what day or time it was or what country I was in. It was one of those kinds of naps.

We met the kids in the common room at 4:00, downloaded pictures, worked on blogs and waited for the BIG EVENT OF THE DAY….DINNER!!! Tota was making lobster!! I had been excited about Hofn lobster for weeks, and she had bought 8 kilos of langanstino lobster to grill. She poured garlic butter on them as she was grilling them, and served a cream sauce over pasta as a side, a salad, and tons of warm, crusty-on-the-outside-soft-in-the-middle French bread to go with it. When she announced it was ready, everyone swarmed. I’ve never seen so much lobster in one kitchen. It was incredible…one of the best meals I’ve ever had (and those who know me understand that that’s saying a lot!).

After dinner, we had a critique of the kids’ work so far. I was beyond impressed. They have come SO far so quickly and are really creative in their shots. They’re doing great work. The kids then had ice cream for dessert before heading to the showers and bed. I opted out on the ice cream, knowing I’d had more than enough lobster an hour earlier.

On Thursday, we got to sleep in until 8:30, which the kids (and I!) were thrilled about. We got up, ate breakfast, packed lunches and headed out for a hike. Well, the kids and Peter and Erika were hiking. Cathy and I were waiting for them on the other side of the hike. We’d decided that today would be a good day for the kids to be alone with Peter and Erika and my foot had demanded that I ease up on the hiking. We dropped everyone off at the starting point of the hike and then got back on the bus with Runnar, who was going to show us around the area in the bus while we waited for the kids to come around the mountain in about four hours. He drove us to the site of the former US Army base and told us about life in Hofn when he was a child growing up there. We hiked up some rocks and took photos of the beach, of birds, of the light tower, of whale bones, etc. Runnar basically went off-roading in the bus and drove us right on to the beach where we took pictures of sheep, birds, chimneys from old houses that used to be on the beach, etc. He told us something interesting about beached whales that am going to research when Google is free again. He said that when a whale knows it’s dying, it will purposely beach itself because it would rather die that way than drown…so often, when well-meaning citizens are trying to get beached whales back into the sea, they really aren’t doing them a favor. Sad, and a perspective I’ve never heard.

We stopped at the local Starbucks for a latte (Viking Café), and then Runnar went off-roading in the bus, right on to the beach.

 We set up lunch for the kids and took 637 more pictures of sheep while we waited to see the kids’ colorful jackets to come around the bend in the distance. They finally made it and a few of them even broke into a sprint when they saw us the lunch tables/food set up near the bus. Poor Juan…as he was sprinting to the lunch table, he thought he was going to get ahead of Austin and Erika, but instead stepped into a marshy area and got his foot and pants soaked with muddy water.

After lunch, we drove about a half-mile to an abandoned Viking village that was actually an abandoned movie set. It was built five years ago for a Mel Gibson movie that never materialized after Mel went off the deep end. The set has just been sitting on the beach ever since. It’s a little boy’s dream come true. SO cool and very authentic. I immediately thought about how much money could/would be made just off birthday party rentals alone if this place was located anywhere near civilization! We all had a great time crawling around the set, taking pictures and generally pretending we were Vikings, especially the boys with the catapult. Runnar explained that an Icelandic director (the guy who recently directed Two Guns) is planning on using the set for a movie in the next year or so, sans Mel Gibson. My bet is on Marky Mark (Wahlberg).

We got back to the hostel and had about an hour to start packing, or nap or download pictures before dinner. Thota was making leg of lamb. I didn’t really think there was any way she could top last night’s dinner, but this one was close – maybe even better! We had leftover lobster, so we had that and the lamb and salad, grilled bell peppers and potatoes. I am not usually a huge fan of lamb, but it was reallllly good and with the lobster as an addition, we basically had Icelandic surf and turf. It would be, no doubt, an $80 meal in a local restaurant and worth every penny KRONA.

After dinner, Peter and Erika showed us some of their photography and talked about their college experience, work experience, etc. The kids enjoyed seeing their work. We then edited pictures from the day and got packed up so we could leave Hofn by 8:30, headed for Acureyri.

Acureyri is the second largest city in Iceland and is about 7 hours from Hofn, on the northeastern part of the island. We drove through beautiful countryside, some on paved road, some on dirt roads, up huge hills and around tight curves. We drove through snow-covered mountains and were amazed at the literally hundreds of waterfalls we saw along the way. Some were small, some were HUGE, but they were everywhere, falling from the mountains into rushing streams below. The snow-topped mountains, green pastures, water falls, streams, sheep, horses, and cute little farm houses all along the way looked like a 200-mile long painting.  If I had been driving myself and had stopped every time I wanted to take a picture, it would’ve taken me seven DAYS to get to Acureyri instead of seven hours. We stopped at noon at a gas station with a picnic area and Tota set up our lunch. We had the usual sandwiches we’ve been having but also had lefotever lamb and lobster. I sat at a picnic table at a gas station in Iceland eating lamb, salad and lobster, shaking my head at the whole experience.

Along the way, Austin saw a sign for a car museum and asked Peter and Runnar if we could stop. Austin eats, drinks and sleeps cars, so was thrilled with the stop. It was pretty cool...LOTS of old cars, both European and American, old tractors and lots of other antiques. We stayed about 30 minutes and then headed on our way.

We arrived in Akureyri around 5:00, got settled in and had pizza - Dominoes! - for dinner! The kids were thrilled to see eight pizzas and Coke and Sprite in the kitchen. After dinner, we worked on blogs and editing before getting some rest for another big day on Saturday.