How Visiting Family is Ruining America

Visiting your grandma is making you dumb and ruining the United States. I just realized this while reading Smile While You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer.

The author, Chuck Thompson, briefly mentions that most Americans travel to visit family members across the country. That, and the meager piece of vacation time doled out to Americans by those cutting their paychecks, are the roots of the problem.

Americans get the shaft when it come to vacation time.

I get 120 hours per year, and this is considered a king’s ransom of vacation time in the United States. Meanwhile, I get snickered at by part-time baristas from Holland for that measly chunk of paid time off (and for my health benefits, which to them is the equivalent of being cared for by faith healers, witch doctors and veterinarians).

So there’s problem one. We have a limited chunk of time.

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Gear Review – The North Face Rock 22 Tent

The North Face Rock 22 tent
Sarah lounges by The North Face Rock 22 tent in Skaftafell National Park, Iceland.

It’s been about 10 years since I first met my wife – that meeting, though, spelled doom for my old tent. It was an aging model from The North Face; it was so old that I can’t even remember the model. But it had room for three, a main door and two sphincter-like hatches your could escape from should a bear attack the front door (I’m presuming that’s why there were there) -- and the grimy funk of more than a decade of teenage/twenty-ish male flatulation, sweat and abuse.

Anyway, I loaned my then-girlfriend my tent for an expedition to the Grand Canyon with her friends. The first night they pitched it, said grimy funk angrily awakened from its tent tomb like Elvis might’ve after hearing that the late Michael Jackson married his daughter.

"Does your dude smell like that?" one of the campers pointedly asked.

My wife-to-be defended my hygiene, but spent the next few years jabbing withering insults at my beloved tent, which was less than portable shelter and more a repository of memories.

I eventually wound up at the late, fairly great Popular Outdoor. There, I scored a deal on a more modern tent – this one The North Face Rock 22 tent.

Over the past few years, I’ve had some chances to use The North Face Rock 22 tent in a variety of places and weather conditions. And I can’t help being even more pleased with it than I was with its smelly predecessor. It’s been nearly blown aloft by strong winds in Prescott, Ariz. It’s been subjected to freezing temperatures in the high desert. It’s been pelted by rain in the Landmannalaugar highlands of Iceland.

Not a drop of water has leaked into it. No pole has broken. There’s not a rip or tear anywhere. And it can endure being compressed to a size small enough to fit into a pack loaded for two weeks of mixed backpacking and civilized vacationing.

That makes The North Face Rock 22 tent pretty impressive. Even better, it only needs two poles. That’s fewer things to lose or break. It goes up in moments, which is really nice when you want nothing more that to dive into a comfy sleeping bag for a good night of sleep.

If I my Rock 22 disappeared or met some horrible fate that made it as smelly as my original tent, I’d buy another one in a second. According to The North Face Web site, it’s going for $189.

That makes The North Face Rock 22 tent a good buy for two adults who don’t camp in the snow. Pair it with quality sleeping bags, and you’ll still be able to use it when he temperatures plummet.

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Why I Went to Iceland

IcelandAir’s “Surtsey” pulls into Gate 2 at JFK’s Terminal 7, ready to take another load to Iceland.

People often ask me why I went to Iceland. Ever since my wife, Sarah, and I have traveled together, every international destination (sorry, Canada, but you don’t count) has taken us south. New Zealand took us to 45 degrees south.

This time, we’ll go north. To spitting distance from the Arctic Circle.

Iceland.

We tell people our destination. They ask "why? What are Iceland’s attractions?”

Honestly, if I have to tell you, you probably won’t get it. But I’ll try, anyway:

Scenery. The place has volcanoes, glaciers, massive slabs of hardened lava – some of which are younger than I am. Explosion craters. Post-apocalyptic remainders of geological wrath. We love these things. No, Iceland is not a lush tropical paradise of cocktails sipped from coconut husks. Only 1 measly percent of the island is arable. It’s stark. Parts of it are are visually indistinguishable from Mars. Others look like Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. [Edit: Since I went to Iceland, the country has provided many scenes for Castle Black and areas north of The Wall in A Game of Thrones.]

Solitude. You can hike four hours without seeing another living creature. And that’s on the country’s premiere hiking route, the Laugavegur. I drove from Lake Myvatn to Húsavík in the north part of the country – and saw a mere handful of vehicles. Most of the route was unpaved. Outside the capital, the main highway aka The Ring Road, is often just one lane.

Novelty. Yes, most people speak English in Iceland. They have a high standard of living, and you’ll find all the modern conveniences. But you’ll see the interesting little differences. Like the language. Iceland’s language has been largely untouched since Vikings landed on its shores 1,000 years ago. They work to preserve it via the Iceland Language Council, which scrupulously adds words as-needed rather than letting foreign words invade willy-nilly. Iceland is modern, but it’s thoughtfully developed.

This adventure starts with a trip to New York’s JFK airport.

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6 Things You Won’t Find in the Iceland Travel Guide

Iceland travel guide
From Reykjavik, Iceland (Photo credit: Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi)

It was nearly midnight as my wife and I strolled back to our guesthouse on Barugata in Reykjavik. The sky was still light, and the partying was just getting started since this was a Friday. Music was blaring out of the upstairs window of a house we were passing. Someone noticed us as we walked by.

"Hey!" he yelled, sticking his head out the window. "How do you like Iceland?"

I yelled back that we were having a great time.

And it was the truth. And part of the enjoyment came from noticing all the interesting quirks of Icelandic society. Here are a few random tidbits that give the place flavor. These are all things you won’t read in an Iceland travel guide.

    • Iceland loves trampolines – In every town, a really surprising percentage of the homes had trampolines. I would guess a good 25 percent, versus fewer than 1 percent for the U.S. It was actually rare for me to walk past five homes and not see at least one trampoline.
iceland travel guide
Iceland loves its trampolines. (via wikimedia)
  • Homebrewing is illegal – Well, you CAN brew your own beer or other alcohol in Iceland if its ABV is 2.25 percent or lower. And what would the point be? The government has a huge hand in the alcohol business. The consequences are pricey spirits, beer and wine. And the beer? Well, this is certainly no craft brew hotspot like Oregon. We ran across one brew that was outstanding – Lava, an imperial stout brewed by Brugghús. Enjoy it with a rich chocolately dessert for best effect. Anyway, it would be nice for Iceland to open the door to homebrewers.
  • Guesthouses go Rick and Lucy style – Every place we stayed at had twin beds. It was easy enough to push them together, but it was just kind of odd. Nowhere did I see this in an Iceland travel guide.
  • Signs of a literary society – There’s an old Viking proverb that says something like "It is better to go without shoes than without books." Iceland also cranks out a lot of books each year. Thus, you have a book-loving society. That’s why every hotel/hostel/guesthouse bed is flanked by reading lights. That’s refreshing – I can’t tell you how many times I try to talk about books with someone, and they say "I don’t have time to read." I’m pretty sure that could get an Icelander exiled.
  • Stirring the English pot – Icelanders are very good at speaking English. Many of their signs are in English. What’s amusing is the mix of British English and American English. For example, most signs refer to a bathroom as a Water Closet or WC in the U.K. fashion. On the other hand, it’s gasoline and not petrol.
  • Iceland puts its kids to work – We arrived in the summer, when kids weren’t at school. But they were busy, taking on work projects such as tending gardens in public areas. Putting kids to work is apparently encouraged; it’s more for giving the kids spending money. They standard of living is high enough in Iceland (economic crash or not) that their work isn’t really for the family to make ends meet.

 

 

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Cave Adventures are the Highlight of Belize

One of the gruesome relics of the ATM cave's past.

Skeletons, Underground River, Make Belize Caving Trip a Wild Time
The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize is just about the greatest underground experience an average Joe caver can enjoy. The sights are awesome – and so are the insights in the Mayan culture.
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Hiking Destination: Iceland’s Landmannalaugar

Windy, steep, bleak. Things are starting to get rough.

Landmannalaugar isn’t so much a place. It’s more of a rip in the space-time continuum.

Consider its summer: It’s hard to tell 3 a.m. from 3 p.m. It can wrap you in the warmth of geothermal vents, chill you with wind, hose you down with rain – all in the span of 30 minutes. You can hike for hours without seeing a solitary living creature. It can even dispatch a lethal blizzard – yes, even in June.

Night doesn’t fall. The often-overcast skies will keep you in a permanent state of twilight. The terrain and scenery changes drastically from mile to mile. The colors of the rhyolite mountains will make you want to get your eyes checked.

In June of 2010, I arrived at Landmannalaugar with my wife. We read about it in guidebooks and blogs. Nothing even remotely prepared us for this place. Oh, we had the equipment we needed. But the scenery! You can look at these photos all you want, and you will still not believe your eyes when you get off the bus from Reykjavik.

There just is no other place like this.

Here’s what to expect on this amazing, one-of-a-kind, 12-kilometer trip from Landmannalauger to the Hrafntinnusker camp site.
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Battle of the Gross Fish: Gefilte Fish Versus Hákarl

Some Greenland shark putrefying Icelandic style.

In an earlier post complete with video, you got to see me eat the rancid Icelandic shark meat known as hákarl. The whole experience made me think of gefilte fish, which I consider the other major abomination of seafood.

One is a motley conglomeration of ingredients ground up together and pressed into patties. The other is just a shark that is left to rot, hung out to dry and sliced into cubes. You’ll find neither on the menu at any fine dining establishments. Since neither is appetizing, I decided to rate which one is more fun to eat. Here are the results (I suppose the winner of this bracket will one day go on the face off against lutefisk)!

Who Eats It?

Gefilte Fish – Just about every Jewish family at Passover – and possibly housecats.

Hákarl – Vikings, Icelanders

Winner: Hákarl, because helmets with horns on them look way cooler than yarmulkes. (Yes, I know Vikings didn’t really wear those, but still … )

Preparation

Gefilte Fish – Grind up carp, matzoh and anything else you can find. Form into patties. Pack it in jar with gelatinous fish broth.

Hákarl- Gut and behead a shark. Bury it for 12 weeks – exhume, and hang out to dry for several months. Slice into cubes and enjoy with brenevin, a strong Icelandic spirit. The intent of the preperation is to press out toxin’s in the shark’s flesh.

Winner: Hákarl. Because sharks are awesome. Carp, not so much.

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Update on Flying with MREs

Before leaving for Iceland, I was a bit worried about flying the military-issue Meals, Ready to Eat packs.

The answers I got from the Delta Airlines and the TSA were less than definitive – Icelandair was crystal-clear: They’re okay in checked luggage.

The good news is that I had no problems flying with my MRE packs. I went through security screening at three different airports (Phoenix Sky Harbor, JFK/New York and Keflavik International) and customs at two of them, and had nary an MRE-related problem (the monosyllabic and surly “instructions” of the wonderful Customs staff at JFK, however, was another story. Only one of that lot was even remotely pleasant.).

Based on my experience, you should have no problems if you put your MREs in your checked luggage and keep the packages sealed. Still, always check with your airline. Policies and regulations are always a moving target, and a terrorism-related panic du jour always seems to be around the corner waiting to monkeywrench travelers’ plans.

New Zealand for the Photographer

tongariro mount doom
A few hearty shrubs are the first appearance of non-human life near Blue Lake.

New Zealand for the Photographer
Travelers who love taking photos will come home from New Zealand with some of their best-ever images. Here are three places you shouldn’t miss if you want to take photos worthy of framing and hanging – and maybe even selling. Also included – a few basic gear tips.
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From nz2

Iceland’s Coffee Culture a Cure for the Common Starbucks

suffistinn
Sufistinn Kaffihus - tasty coffee, amazing desserts near Reykjavik, Iceland.

Three Great Coffeehouses in Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland, is absolutely bristling with inviting coffeehouses. Kaffitar, Cafe Rot and Sufistinn Kaffihus are three of its best.
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Eating Hákarl in Iceland

Fermented shark, hákarl, is an example of a cu...
Fermented shark, hákarl, is an example of a culinary tradition that has continued from the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century to this day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the reasons I went to Iceland was to try the country’s “delicacy” (just in case the quotes don’t make it clear enough, this is using the term very loosely) known as hákarl. This translates simply into “shark.” You pronounce it as “HOW-ker.”

But it’s more than that: It’s a shark that’s spent months decomposing underground to begin draining it of toxins. These toxins, according to National Geographic, act as antifreeze so it can live in cold waters around Iceland and Greenland. The curing process makes it safe for humans to eat. After being buried, it’s then exhumed, hung up for a few months, sliced and eaten raw.

I couldn’t wait to give it a go. Watch the video to see what happens, and be sure to read my conclusion at the bottom of this post.

 

Okay, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. I’d eat hákarl before I’d eat gefilte fish, for sure. It’s far cooler. But after the video was shot, my wife looked pretty grossed out, and I half-expected her to abandon me in the south of Iceland if I didn’t dispose of the shark immediately.

So I carried the remained out into the streets looking for a trash can. The two bins I found appeared to be for recycling only. Then I saw a large red bin, which usually means a big truck comes, picks it up and dumps the contents into its garbage-holding area. So I flung the bag up over the walls.

Or so I thought.

The “trash bin” was a storage shed, and it was too big for me to get on top and recover the bag from its roof. So some grocery store storage shed now has a bag of hákarl aging on top of it. Oof. Sorry to my friends in Iceland. I promise I was trying to do the right thing!

 

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Visit Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory

The ultimate eating machine - waiting for you to visit.

A Guide to Darwin, the Gateway to Adventure in Australia’s Top End
If you’re off to Australia, you need to see the rugged Northern Territory. It’s rugged and untamed, and the port town of Darwin is a major gateway to all the fun. There are tons of trips departing Darwin – all ready to take travelers from Litchfield Park to the mighty Kakadu!
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Nordic Chihuahuas and Glacier Dogs – Pets in Iceland

"Spot" takes a break while exploring the pseudocraters.

NOTE: To see more of Iceland, see my Flickr Photostream.

People in Iceland really seem to love domestic animals – from the smallest yappy dog to the stoutest horse. Being an animal lover myself (domestic and wild), I take a lot of notice about pets’ role in a society I’m visiting. Here are a few things I noticed about pets in Iceland.

A Nordic Chihuahua?

I noticed an astounding number of chihuahuas in Iceland. Most of them were around Reykjavik, but I spotted a few in smaller towns, too. This really shocked me, since I associate them with the Southwest – wear it’s an advantage to have barely any fur.

These little dogs must spend the entire winter shivering or kept indoors. Unless Zo-On makes some cool winter clothes tailored for small dogs! To give them credit for adaptation, none of the chihuahuas I saw were nervous, shivering or yappy. They were certainly more calm and friendly than the ones who lived next door to me (I don’t miss being barked at every day!).

“Spot” Roams the Lava Flow

In the small town of Kirkjubaeklaustar (Icelanders got a lot of laughs out of hearing me try to pronounce this), we stayed at the Hotel Laki Efri-Vik. A dog lived at the hotel, and seemed to be in a permanent state of bliss. She met all sorts of people, and she was pretty successful at following them for short walks around the nearby lake and enticing them to throw sticks for her (though there are not many sticks on the old lava flow that constitutes the entire area). The dog, whose name is the Icelandic word for “Spot,” even followed us on a 5-mile walk through the pseudocraters dotting the landscape.

She seemed the most carefree dog ever, given full range to roam the land. There was barely any traffic to worry her, and all the guests were happy to be her friend during their stay.

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Packing – One of the Hardest Parts of Travel

That's a big pack, dude!

As I was filling up my backpack for traveling to Iceland, all I could think about was a line from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian: “Is it too big? Is it too small?”

I never want to bring too much, but I also never want to get totally soaked in a random storm like I did in New Zealand.  And I actually needed a tent and sleeping bag this time – and a pair of running shoes since my wife signed us up for the Miðnæturhlaup, which is “Midnight Run” in Icelandic. I also had to bring stuff for hanging out in Reykjavik in addition to exploring the volcanic badlands.

Anyway, I ruthlessly put together a packing list of everything I took and evaluated whether or not I would bring it on my next trip (well, to a place with a similar climate, anyway). Some mainstays that always make it into the pack are ExOfficio underwear, my freakin’ awesome La Sportiva boots and my practically immortal REI convertible cargo pants, which continue ticking after nearly 5 years of use.

Anyway, here’s how all this stuff fared during two weeks at the 66th parallel. Keep this in mind if you’re planning to hit the cooler climates this summer.

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