The start of a real summer

Most people can agree that summer in Iceland isn’t much of a summer event. I’ve always said that my annual winter season is June-September in Iceland, and summer happens the other 8 months of the year in warmer, tropical countries south of here. But lo and behold, June came as a surprise.

the last of the snow hanging on after an early onset of a warm summer

Compared to last year, when it rained basically every single day of the month of June and the recorded sunshine hours for the whole month had already been surpassed in May this year, this June was hot, warm and dry, day after day. It was so dry the bugs didn´t make it out – there were no midge flies to be seen – and the dust clouds in the highlands would blow all the way to Reykjavik. We’re also talking about 24 hours a day of this – the sun never set so it went on and on and on and still, I woke up every day with a rain jacket and woollen lopa peysa ready to put on when the weather would finally crack.

Thingvallavatn

June saw the highland roads open early, but an emptiness remained on the well-beaten tracks of tourist trails, since tourism was still reeling from Wow air going bankrupt in April. Hotels and restaurants were still not at 100% operation, but finally there was breathing and playing space for Icelander’s to enjoy the best summer on record in over 40 years. The number of hotel rooms and tour operators may actually have been enough, for the first time since 2008, this June.

a beach day, under the glacier

However, there are always 2 sides to a story, and June was the worst month in 40 years for the salmon rivers. The most popular, productive fishing rivers had no water, and thus, no fish, and men who had paid over $1000 per day in fishing permits had resorted to just sitting in the fishing lodges drinking fine wine and smoking cigars on the patio. Some didn’t even bother to go, and fishing lodges all around Iceland sat empty for days at a time. But think about the salmon – where did they all go? Or didn’t they come at all? I hope they managed to spawn… or at least I hope they didn’t all die.

oh the places you’ll go… in a nice Icelandic summer!

I have to admit that the best part of the summer wasn’t the weather, but my life in it. I finally have a home I can call my own. It’s a wonderful place to keep all my stuff,  although I still feel very little need to be there with it all. That’s why I bought a second home on wheels – a Ford transit connect that used to be rented out as a campervan, fitted out with a sink, water pump, solar-powered fridge and a  couch that folds down to a double bed.

my home on wheels, the plumber car!

It kind of looks like a plumber’s car from the outside, a non-descript grey with no windows except at the front and back. I’ve added a table and chairs, a permanent stash of drinks and food, a yoga mat, hiking shoes and poles and a bathing suit and towel to make the car travel ready at the drop of a hat. I have probably spent as many nights in the car as in my own bed, and I’m still not sure which I prefer. Perhaps the winter will bring me back indoors a bit, we shall see.

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Ile de la Reunion, a colourful French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean

Its weird to fly 12 hours south from Paris, over half of Africa, into a hot and humid island  in the middle of the Indian ocean and still be in France. Ile de la Reunion is a department of France, full of way too many Renault and Peugot cars, where Metropoles shop at supermarkets, stocked with foie gras and champagne, and pay in euros. But it felt somehow familiar – Reunion is to France what Hawaii is for the USA, a slice of home out in the tropics.

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

one of the many natural fresh water pools you can hike to thru tropical forests

Like Hawaii, its also a lush, green island, stretching from coasts of crystal blue waters up to black volcanic peaks. The middle of Reunion is split into 3 large craters or ‘cirques’, all inhabited somewhere remotely. Mafate is a car-less village, only visitable by hiking in and out from the top of the crater. Another cirque is still a very active volcano. The Piton de Fournaise started erupting the day after I arrived, so I didn’t miss the opportunity for a midnight hike up to see the red-hot, glowing, spewing lava eruption. I was surprised how many other people were walking the 3-4 hour return hike in the middle of the night, dressed like we were back in France, because at 2200m above sea-level, even this tropical island was freezing cold.

the road to Cilaos

the road to Cilaos

There were other natural forces in Reunion that made the island seem wild and dangerous. A recent rise in shark attacks has made half the coast unswimmable. The road to Cilaos, at the bottom of the third cirque, is a narrow, windy, cliff-hanging road full of blind turns and two tunnels only wide enough to fit a bus – there were literally only centimeters between the side mirrors and the walls. When the road turns into single-lane width, just before another u-turn bend, cars simply lay on their horns to warn any oncoming traffic of a potential head-on crash. The day I left Reunion, a cyclone warning had been announced, and I’m not sure when or how hard Cyclone Carlos was, but people had already started locking down their homes.

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

colonial architecture left an interesting mark in Reunion

The people of Reunion are a mix of metropoles and creoles, with very friendly, civilized demeanors. People I passed in the street said Bonjour just to say hello, and after the first few hellos, I started greeting everyone that made eye contact with me with a smiley Bonjour, and didn’t feel weird about it. I traveled mostly by public bus, which is superbly organized, and the regional bus drivers were even greeted with handshakes and cheek kisses by the passengers. I didn’t try that, since I assume the probably knew eachother.

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

beaches of paradise, without sharks, are on the west and south coast

I always say Iceland would be the best country in the world if we had better weather, but maybe we just need to colonize a tropical island and export our people and culture out there. I guess I’ll have to keep my eye open for an eligible island for the rest of my Indian Ocean trip.

Rabaul under Ashes

I flew from Port Moresby to Kokopo, which is the replacement city to Rabaul, a harbor town destroyed by two volcanoes in 1994 (and 1937). There was once a booming town, now buried under 6 feet of ash, with a busy domestic airport and lots of international tourism, but all there’s left of it is a steamy volcano crater, and 3 or 4 concrete buildings that still need to sweep away ash that gets blown around on a daily basis. Miraculously the town is actually covered in green, the mounds of ask creating the perfect fertile grounds gor a new forest to spring up, and the roads have been excavated to provide access to a few villagers still squatting the modern-day Pompeii, but most of the life has moved 30km away to Kokopo, PNG’s quickest growing city.

Rabaul under ashes

Rabaul under ashes

The little harbor between Rabaul and Kokopo is basically a chain of volcanoes, 3 which are dormant and 2 which are very active. I had heard of atleast 10 hotels between Rabaul and Kokopo I could stay at, all ludicrously expensive, but after trying my luck at 6 of them which were all full and almost getting killed by a coconut walking out of the Ropopo Resort, I called my friend in Port Moresby to help. He made a few SOS calls, and 2 degrees of separation later, I had the friend of a wife of his friend of his put me up in her cozy apartment in Kokopo. I got attacked by a huge butterfly at the golf club and went to the housewarming party of some aussie, and otherwise most of my time was spent closer to Rabaul, taking in the scenery of a near-Armageddon.

ontop of the Mother

ontop of the Mother

A group of us hiked up a dormant volcano called Mother, which looked down on the dormant Daughter and the active, steam-billowing Tavurvur beside her. We ate coconuts on the way down, the coconut milk, meat, and some weird variation of a seedling coconut whose insides turn into this fluffy cotton candy floss. I spent some time at the market, where the common fare is betel nuts, mustard sticks and lime powder, but also pineapples, cucumbers, tomatoes, peanuts, lettuce, eggplant, avocado if you’re lucky, and some very colourful hand-woven purses.

the man purse

the man purse

They were made of palm leaves and yarn, and no matter what shape size or colour, they all ended in frilly bits and unkept ties, slightly resembling ths feathers-on-a-stick charms called “fascinators” that they sell, all to resemble the most beautiful birds and flowers found in nature. The man-purse was taken to a whole new level, since men had just as colourful handbags, but hung them around their necks in an attempt to make them more masculine. But no man went anywhere without his wallet, a woven-leaf basket in a half-moon shape, holding all his most important things (money and betel nuts).

Pompei Viva

I knew I couldn’t visit Naples without going to Pompei, but I had no idea how big or interesting it was. Showing up at 3 pm, an hour before the gates closed, then proved to be a bad choice, but then the guards told me that no one gets let in after 4, but people don’t get kicked out until 7. So I set off to get lost in the excavated city.

Mount Vesuvius as seen from the main square "Foro"

Pompei (sometimes spelled Pompeii) was a thriving Roman city until 79AD when the nearby volcano Vesuvius unexpectedly exploded. In only 2 days, the entire city was buried under 6 metres of ash and pumice. Up to 10 km away, people literally melted dead, dying from surges of hot air, but most suffocated to death before they could escape. The city was almost buried alive, keeping it perfectly preserved, so that walking around its ruins today seems like you’re eerily walking around a city that was deserted yesterday.

The main entrance, showing the bath halls outside the city wall

I battled through tour group after tour group. Each had a dozen or more tourists, with a tour guide holding an umbrella or a stick tied with a scarf to lead them. Some had identical hats or lanyards, even tshirts, so they wouldn’t lose eachother, and some had earphones in their ear which were connected to the tourguide talking constantly into a microphone. German, French, Spanish, English, Japanese and Chinese… but no Italian groups. I would get lost in the midst of group after group, struggling to escape, since overtaking them was hard but getting stuck behind one wasn’t an option – since I wanted to get around the whole city in 4 hours.

As I was wandering around, I passed a few other couples and backpackers, with handy guidebooks or talking headsets, and started regretting my choice not to join a group or hire a guide. There were so many things I didn’t understand, and hundreds of questions I wished I could ask a Pompeiian who was still alive.

At one junction, when I was trying to find Villa de Misteri, a tall, thin Italian with slicked back white hair jogged up beside me. He was wearing yellow short shorts and a matching tshirt, and asked me if he could help me find something. I lied and said no, that I wasn’t looking for anything, and looked lost since I was trying to get lost. He smiled, then said “Perfect. Let me show you something then.”

An immaculately preserved painting

He first started at the city boundary wall that we happened to be standing right beside. He explained the markings on the wall were from the first Roman invasion, when the city was still a Greek colony. The invasion came from the north, another enlightening discovery for historians.  To our left began the above-ground tombs, since dead people couldn’t be buried inside the city walls. He explained who was buried in each one, reading the legible Latin engravings on every stone, which told us who their father was, what their occupation was, and how much the burial cost.

My fascination and obvious ignorance probably began to bleed through my smile. “Well, I don’t really need to go for a jog today anyway. Im the head tour-guide of Pompei and have lived and worked here for 35 years, so why don’t I show you around a little?” He went on to give me a 3 hour personal tour guide, through all of Villa de Misteri and back into the city walls around the most interesting sights. We stayed in the park well past dark, and he told the guards to let us be until 7:30 when we had all of Pompei to ourselves. He got keys from another guard to sneak me into inaccessible rooms, and showed me the bathing hall and the only chariot they unearthed, perfectly intact.

A beautiful mosaic

We wandered around like kids, both partaking in a game of imagination that the city was thriving around us and I was a Roman princess courting Apollo. We walked into the Temple of Jupiter, which he refused to climb since he wasn’t Apollo’s love interest, and made sure I saw the brothel rooms which I never could have seen if I was really a Roman princess. He showed me the bodies of people, frozen in the position they were when they took their last choking breath. He pointed out the phallic engravings of penises in the weirdest places – on cobblestones on the ground, on the sides of pillars, in beautiful paintings – and assured me over and over they were signs of good luck, not perversion.

He read every bit of Latin he could see, translating it into English word by word, and explained in great detail all the contested meanings of paintings.

The urns for wine and fishsauce

He pointed out original graffiti on the walls, of Roman emperors with big noses, and picked leaves off the Laurel trees to make me sniff and imagine them as my headcrown. We walked over mosaic floors and looked at Egyptian decorations, as he got more and more excited about teaching me about the cultural complexity of the town and how much borrowing and trade there was between empires.

He could never walk and talk at the same time. So we’d walk a few steps, and then he’d have to stop and explain something, and then we’d walk until I asked another question, which he would have to stop and answer. It was hilarious, and everytime I laughed at him, he laughed louder and harder until he abruptly saw something else to talk about and became totally serious, starting another fascinating lecture.

The main street with chariot wheel tracks

He told me the population was probably 15,000, and explained which streets were the main streets, and even what they were called. During heavy rain fall, the streets flooded into small streams, and big stepping stones were used to get across the streets. The high traffic of horse-drawn chariots actually left wheel tracks in the massive stones, which were supposed to be fixed by taxes collected from the people living on each street. He knew who lived in what house, and what they did. Many made wine and fishsauce, and kept them in big ceramic pots, and others were artists or bakers. There were athletes too, and gymnasiums where they trained for Olympic events – which they always competed in naked.

The Temple of Jupiter after dark

The entire city came alive to me, and even as it became night, the cloak of darkness let me run wilder with what I thought I saw or heard. I felt like staying until the next morning to see the city return to life, since it seemed to real, so normal, for it to be exactly as I imagined it. I never did go back the next day, even though my guide invited me, but perhaps its best I didn’t, since I may not have turned out to be a real Roman princess in the living Pompei.