Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 5. Around Iceland – Part 3

The one thing about my remote youth hostel is that there were no nearby stores or restaurants. One would think that the hostel manager would then consider carrying some things like ramen noodles or rice, so that unprepared guests like me would have at least something to munch on. Same thing for coffee in the morning. But no, there were no such accommodations, so I had to tough it out, and the next morning I was a bit grumpy when I took off. Since I was already 30 km into the dirt road I figured that I had to finish going around the peninsula, and in retrospect I am glad that I did because it was a glorious sunny day, and the sights of the ocean against the backdrop of the snowy walls of the fjords was spectacular. In fact that was the case for the rest of the day, so you will thank me that I don’t go endlessly about how pretty this was, and how spectacular that was.

By 8 am I was thirsty and falling asleep for lack of my caffeine dose, and by 9 am I was in need of an injection of caffeine direct to the heart. One thing missing in Iceland are    7-Eleven stores all over the place, but I felt salvation was at hand when I spied an N1 service station in the distance. This particular chain of service stations advertises with the motto “Come for the petrol, stay for the food”, and I was very glad to spend a small fortune in two small cups of coffee. Maybe this is a good point to talk about prices. Iceland is expensive, things being anywhere between two and three times as much as in the US. For example, a small cup of coffee at the gas station costs $2.50, and a bag of chips costs $6. Breakfast will see you back by about $12, dinner will be anywhere from $15 for a personal pizza to $25-$40 for a main course, and a pint of beer to go with dinner will be $6.50. Gasoline is about $6.50 a gallon, an individual room at the remote youth hostel without food will be $50 per night (and that does not include linen), whereas a bed in a dorm room will run you about $30 per night. This is traveling on the cheap, eating and shopping where the locals do. Tourist hotels are a lot more expensive, and just about anything touristy you want to do (e.g., a boat ride to go see whales, or a raft trip down the river) will run $100 to $200 on the average. Entrance to a museum or exhibition costs between $8 and $20.

Even though I believe that tourist attractions are horrendously overpriced (and I think this is a purposeful policy to take advantage of tourism as a source of employment and income), the fact remains that the average Icelandic citizen drinks the same beer and eats the same pizza at these high prices. Still, they can afford it! Unemployment stands at about 2%, they have socialized medicine (the value-added tax is 25% to pay for their social services), their houses are small but pretty, and cars are small but all look fairly new. So they are doing well, but once again I have to ask, how to they do it?

Industries, as far as I can tell, include fisheries and small craft building, wool products, sheep husbandry, tourism, and services. That is it! What kind of magic key do they have that we don’t know about? I believe the surface area of the country is about 100,000 km2 to the US 10,000,000 km2 (100th of the surface of the US). On another measure of comparison they have 300,000 inhabitants to the US 300,000,000 (or 1,000th of the US population). In short, they have about 10 times more land per person than we have, but if you have been reading the previous days a lot of their land is pretty grim and unsuitable for economic activities. I think the key is that there is less of an economic disparity between people. They don’t seem to have filthy rich people, but nor do they seem to have very poor people, so with most people being in the middle they all fare reasonably well.

I said I was not going to go on and on about the landscape, but there are a couple of things I want to say about three days of travel. First, this is a mountainous country, so I am totally amazed at the number of people I have seen doing bicycle treks. In three days I saw maybe 10 to 15 pairs, loaded like burritos, huffing and puffing but undeterred by sun, rain, or sleet. A goodly number of these pairs were he and she, middle age, presumably out to have an Icelandic adventure. As a flat-land bicycle enthusiast I have to admire their moxy in undertaking such and adventure.

The other thing I have admired are the flocks of sheep. Clearly lambing must have happened, because all ewes are happy guiding their extremely fat little lambs from one patch of grass to the other. The little ones look like small barrels of wool on extremely nimble and spindly legs. Now and then you see only one ewe and one lamb, or one ewe and three lambs, but the rule seems to be two per ewe. I did try Icelandic lamb in Reykjavik and found it delicious and not gamey (the Icelanders say it is the good grass they eat), so I can believe it is of good export quality, and the wool sweaters are nice and expensive (but really, you would only use them at an ugly Christmas sweater party), so here is to the little fuzz balls that so ably support he economy of this country.

Icelanders are also very proud of their Viking ponies, which you see all over the place. Mama ponies are foaling right now, and some of the babies I saw seemed to be at best a few hours old. Spring is late coming to Iceland, but it is here in force right now.

No comments: