Icelandic Winter Traditions

New Years eve, and the few days leading up to it, are very explosive, literally. Icelanders buy hundreds and hundreds of tons of fireworks and explode them downtown, in backyards, harbours, farms, you name it. Reykjavik is the only city in the world where I can actually hear midnight coming, as the fireworks get more and more intense around Hallgrimskirkja, the loudest climax is the moment when the New Year has arrived.

The Christmas Market in Hafnafjordur

With 26 days of Christmas, there are a lot of traditions that Icelandic people keep up to fill the dark winter season. There’s even a small Christmas Market ´Jólaþorpið´started in Hafnafjordur, and free ice skating in Ingolfstorg downtown for all the days in December. Then of course there are the famous, or infamous, Yule lads, the 13 Christmas elves who each have a special, mischievous role to play. There´s the hungry ones: Sausage Stealer, Skyr Gobbler, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Meat Hook, who loves smoked lamb, and Stubby, who likes eating pan crusts.

There´s the creepy ones, Sheep harassing Sheep-Cote-Clod, Door Sniffer and the Window Peeper. Then there’s the annoying ones: the noisy Door Slammer, Gully Gawk who likes to jump out and scare people, and Candle Sneaker, who’s also hungry because they’re used to stealing candles made of animal fat and eating them.

ice skating in Ingolfstorg

These fine examples of Icelandic folklore are the sons of a large, ugly, child-eating troll named Gryla, and her black cat eats Children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas. The Yule lads are not all bad – they bring down a present to put in your shoe, one by one, for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, unless you misbehave – then you get a potato or a piece of coal. Then 13 days after Christmas, the Yule lads return back to Gryla in her mountain, and the last day of Christmas is Jan 6, but its only a few weeks to wait until Thorrablot, Icelands other, rather unappealing, winter tradition.

Thorrablot used to be a pagan festival, dedicated to pagan gods in the fourth month of winter, previously known as Thorri. It’s basically a midwinter party (end-Jan to mid Feb in the modern day calendar) dedicated to eating sour and fermented foods, the same ram testicles, sheep head, rotten shark, liver and blood sausages as the vikings ate before the modernisation or Christianisation of Iceland. Its also a drunken time, when farmers and fishermen and city folk alike gather in huge groups (a dinner for hundreds of people sometimes), organising with the next county or community to make sure they don’t hold the festival on the same night, so that everyone can go to more Thorrablots and drink enough beer and brennivin to wash all the sour food down and hangover away. Sounds like a blast, right?

midday in midwinter

My favourite Þorrablóts are happening around Feb 1st in the north of Iceland, be sure to check out Varmahlíð or Hunaver´s schedule, or just search Thorrablot in Facebook events to be sure to find the one closest to you. Or, if sour food isn´t for you, there´s always hottubs and the outdoor bathing culture we all love and need to get us through a long Icelandic winter.

Spring days in Taipei

Before moving on to the next destination, people always ask where I’m going next. When Taiwan was the answer, I always got a positive respone. People love this island and Taipei city, so I grew more and more excited to go. I had stalked the weather forecast for a while and knew it’d be around 20`C, and that the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. I didn’t expect it to be so humid , and sometimes windy, so the 20` quickly felt like 10` since the sun rarely shone through. It’s a weird sky in Taipei, gloomier than a London gray, but not as thick as Delhi brown. It didn’t feel foggy or polluted, but the sky was heavy and no pictures turned out well in that kind of lighting.

Gray skies over Tamsui

Gray skies over Tamsui

Still I loved Taipei too. It’s always intimidating traveling in a country whose language you cant speak and alphabet you can’t read, but most people knew enough words in English to help me out when I needed to communicate. It’s a tourist friendly city to visit, with cheap and regular public transport taking you anywhere you’d want by train, bus or free bicycle. There was free wifi nearly everywhere, one which was connected to my passport number. There was a free youth pass for people aged 18-30, which is so much better than the European under 26 rule (says the newly turned 28 year old). There was free hot and cold water stations in most public areas or tourist attractions, and every temple, palace and museum I visited was free except for the Taipei 101 tower top floor.

one of Taipei's many night markets

one of Taipei’s many night markets

The number of markets, and different types, was overwhelming. There were tourist markets, night markets, fish markets, flower markets, and jade markets, all spread out all over the city, and each and every market sold delicious cheap street food and a hundred varieties of teas. You could buy soup, wontons, dimsum, tempura, meat on a stick, sweet buns, fried noodles, Nutella crepes, or a whole squid on a stick for $3. Sometimes the market was hidden down a pedestrian alley, and sometimes it was in the middle of the road, but they were always crowded and easily reachable.

the pretty gardens at Chiang Kai-Shek plaza

the pretty gardens at Chiang Kai-Shek plaza

If you’ve ever been to Chinatown in Manhattan, imagine an entire city of Chinatowns and you’ve got Taipei. My favourite part of Taipei was all the shiny streets and lights balanced out by huge parks and green spaces. Even the garbage trucks were pleasant, since they drove thru the streets playing Fur Elise on a loudpseaker, which reminds me of the icecream trucks in Canada that play The Entertainer. The highlight of my visit was when the Taipei Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert in Daan Park, where they played only the most famous and beautiful songs on an open-air stage. That was the one day it actually hit 20` so it was warm enough to sit outside, but a little bit of rain cancelled the last few songs and I biked home along the streets which turned into mirrors reflecting all the shiny bright city lights. I got a little too into it when I skidded to late for a stop light and crashed my bike into the curb… the bike survived, but not quite my knee. I also think I got lice from my couchsurfer’s dog, but atleast they’ve both left little scars that tell a good story.


Street food in Central America

street food in Ahuachapan, El Savador

A consistent highlight has always been street food deliciousness – there are so many, wonderful, cheap eats that are almost always worth the risk of a sick tummy. Even the couple times I have gotten an upset stomach, I’m pretty sure its because of the unclean water that I drink involuntarily, in the form of ice, soups, coffee or water-washed fruits. Hygene isn’t great either, with the narrow, winding alleyways becoming the main garbage collection spot for all the grocers and food vendors while dozens of stray dogs linger nearby, waiting for an edible morsel of food to drop to the ground. One gentleman who sold me a $0.20 icecream cone had the sniffles and kept wiping his nose with the same hand he held the icecream in, probably thinking it was more polite not to hold out the snotty hand to take my money and give back change, but I’m not sure that was better than accepting the icecream from that hand.

Claudia waits for our $1.10 carne asada in Copan

I  love going into churches, since even the smallest towns have usually half a dozen, and the surrounding plazas and squares that are always full of local people, night life, or bustling markets. Shopping and bargaining those markets is an amazing sensory explosion, because you could never imagine more options of stuff for sale in such quantity, variety, or density. One Mayan market I went to in Solola totally covered every walkable inch of central park, and in one breath you could smell coffee, dried fish, barbequed meat, and chicken poo from the live chics being sold by the dozen. You could also buy grains, vegetables, pirated CD’s, cell phone accessories, leather products, individual razors or shampoo, and all all sorts of pretty cloth. All the new mothers carry their infant children in long pieces of cloth tied around their backs, keeping their hands free and their heads reserved for carrying baskets full of heavy items, and sometimes even live chickens and turkeys tied down and balanced ontop their heads, clearly suffering in the direct sun.

the sensory bombarding market in Solola, Guatemala

Shopping in the markets for your daily needs is status quo for most locals, and when there arent any franchise alternatives to getting your groceries then why not do it too. Even if I don’t need to buy anything, it’s just too interesting of an experience to pass up, since walking through any market will give you so many pretty things to see and smell, all the while guessing what half of the unrecognizable merchandise is. When you’re just learning spanish, it also doesn’t help to ask what something is, because of course they’ll respond what the spanish name of it is, and if I pride myself in knowing all the words for different colours and my ability to count, translating the name of an exotic fruit I’ve never seen or tasted just doesnt happen. One of those was nance – anyone know what the equivalent or comparable english description of that fruit is?

Im not sure what they all are, but some of it looks like cat food, and it's very cheap per kg