Land of Ice and Infinite Raw Beauty

Iceland, we have done you wrong! Please forgive us, we will sing your praises, in repentance, forevermore.

CLICK ON THE VIDEO of the Skogafoss Waterfall !

Iceland was never high on our Bucket list.

So true for Iceland!

And there were good reasons for that. Firstly, it was, like other Scandinavian destinations, always exceedingly expensive. Secondly, it became excessively crowded, peaking at 2,3 million visitors in a country of only 360,000 people.

Well, not anymore. In this crazy 2020 year of travel, Iceland was empty,

Immense parking lots devoid of tourists

like every other country around the globe. Except that Iceland was incredibly successful in fighting COVID-19 and hence poised to open up to tourists first.

And your intrepid crazyparents were on the first flight from Prague to Keflavík international airport on June 17th.

Despite much trepidation (will the flight go, or the airlines file for bankruptcy first, will they let us in…?) our one and only plane was met with efficiency and speed. After two quick COVID swabs, yes, unpleasant, but free and totally worth it, we were in.

For once Hertz was there, the only rental company opened at night. The girl at the desk was so excited to see us, her only customers, that she gave us a triple upgrade.

And off we went into the late sunset, or actually early sunrise.

That’s the thing, with June days so very long we could drive to all late hours of the night on totally empty roads.

The few local cars we met, whizzed by, or overtook us immediately, stupid tourists following the limit signs.

Well, not only were we forewarned about the speed traps, more importantly, it was lambing season and the sheep moms with their cute little twin babies often wandered into the road.

Our plan was to drive the main Ring Road or Route 1, the only road that goes around Iceland.

Theoretically one could drive its mere 1,332 km (828 miles) in a few days, but with the awe struck photographer on the passenger seat the stops were exceedingly frequent. How could they not be?

We added two days on the Snaefellsnes peninsula and minimized our Reykjavik stay to one last day. A few extra days would have been good, but then, aren’t they always?

Never have we slept so little on any of our travel explorations because even when we finally got to bed, it was impossible to close our eyes. The show outside of the panoramic windows was ongoing and ever-changing.

Just when you would think that the sun has finally set in a blaze of pinks and purples and oranges, there would be a burst of sun rays from the clouds or fog and the sun would start rising again.

Despite the catastrophic weather prognosis of 10 days of 80% rain, the Norse gods smiled upon us and all together we only had two days of drizzle.

We had plenty of sun and dramatic clouds often chased by cold blustery winds.

One day there was even a record-breaking 24 degrees C (75F) which to us seemed a good time to peel off our puffy jacket layer,

while the tough Viking descendants stripped down to shorts and spaghetti straps. No wonder…

5C=41F

As the country’s name denotes we did expect plenty of ice, but found the presence of glaciers so close to the road astounding. It would have been cool to take a super Jeep and go walking on the glaciers, but even with a short hike one could get really close.

For those of you who haven’t met a glacier up close, there is often a lot of black mixed with white, especially nowadays with global warming and pollution.

The one place that was top on my Iceland list was the Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón)

and especially the unique Diamond Beach at its mouth.

I was looking forward to spending some creative fun time photographing the many pieces of ice on the black sand. Alas, this was our one day of rain, so the stop was very short.

Still, a few fun shapes emerged from the shots taken from under the umbrella.

Ice Salmon?

or

Big Haired Ice Lady sniffing perfume on her wrist?

Snow and ice for sure, but what really surprised us was how green Iceland was. From the large swaths of green pastures

munched on by sheep and horses to moss-covered glacier-fed stream banks, glorious green was jumping at us.

And there were many different colorful flowers. Some were tiny, brave, alpine flowers growing in tough rocky conditions

and some were surprisingly scarce radiant Arctic poppies.

The biggest surprise was seeing the enormous areas of blue and purple lupines by the sides of the roads or creeping up the mountains.

Lupines are a nonnative plant, considered by some an undesirable invasive species. It was introduced in the 1970s to help combat soil erosion. When Vikings came to Iceland from Norway in the late 9th century, they found a land so thick with woods they could only explore it by ways of rivers. Very soon they managed to cut all the trees down to build their homes and keep them warm in the long winters. The few forests of trees now standing were replanted only some 120 years ago.

Weeds or no, lupines are an impressive sight that we enjoyed again and again.

Now, where are the famous Icelandic waterfalls, you might wonder and why have you kept us waiting? Well, I guess the waterfalls are an Icelandic cliche, but honestly, they were indeed exceedingly beautiful and each unique, so we never tired of them, even though we are not real waterfall chasers. There are hundreds of waterfalls, small and big, gushing off of the side of mountains and canyons.

Gulfoss waterfall

Because of the sunny weather we were treated to rainbow shows in many places.

Skogafoss waterfall

Yeah!

Some waterfalls show two different faces, front

Butter cups of Seljalandfoss

and back

Seljalandfoss waterfall cave

Some are easy to get to, like Godafoss, where the pagan gods’ statues were thrown into the water, if not oblivion, after the switch to Christianity.

Others demand an early morning hike, like Hengifoss.

Halfway up

We have to share all this wild beauty with just a few other travelers, and it feels like we are back in the golden olden days when travelers were few and everyone actually talked to each other and asked for advice on closed roads and opened coffee shops.

Comparing notes is helpful indeed because sometimes road signs have not been removed after winter.

And the roads have not been repaired either… still, we bravely press on and after a lot of bouncing, we arrive at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

I guess that is enough waterfalls for now. Then there are other phenomenal sights like geysers and more.

Saving those for the next installment.

Romanian Rhapsody in Blue

Through futuristic sunflower fields sown thickly with sleek New Age wind mills we slipped into Romania. On small country roads, only occasionally passing a horse and cart loaded to the brim with fresh hay, we sped towards a tiny village of Plopul on Sfante Gheorghe arm of Danube. There we had arranged for a private boat tour and a stay at a restored traditional house. The house was absolutely charming in its authenticity and simplicity except for a crucial detail: it did not have the promised air conditioner. With mosquitos descending with the evening we hightailed it out of there. “No worries, there are plenty of other accommodations on Booking.com,” I said as we turned towards the bigger village of Murighiol. “I am not booking anything until I see it,” my husband was adamant.

Well, let me tell you, only at the height of Sakura season in Japan did we have such a hard time finding a decent bed. I will spare you the crazy details of being turned away from guest houses that showed availability online to people not calling us back with directions to their place. The first night we ended up in a ridiculously overpriced old communist resort where an International conference of Fisheries was in its final stages with a “traditional” music group performing. With the secure knowledge of the air conditioner humming away in our drab room and an introduction to excellent Romanian dark beer I was able to join in the festivities with a few rounds of kolo circle dance. Afterwards I transferred my enthusiasm to killing some nearly frozen mosquitos on the ceiling of our room. Do you know what is the most effective way of their extermination? You take a bed pillow and you throw it up at them with all your might. Compared to a hand or actowel, the large thick pillow surface prevents their escape.

The next morning our search for accommodations continued. It was only through an accountant at a very fancy resort kindly calling her friend that we got a cute apartment at a place that was actually sold out. Our disappointment continued with surly slow services, and mediocre food, including the boniest fish in the world. When we recounted our frustrating experiences to traveling Romanians, they had no good explanation.

“It is the Delta,” said a young chap on vacation with his family. “We don’t get treated any better. Please do not let this spoil your Romanian experience. You will find it much more developed and tourist friendly anywhere else. ” And he was right. At the end Romania was our favorite Balkan country and the Delta, too, redeemed itself at the end.

I absolutely fell in love with the sweet little white and blue thatch covered village houses, many dating back centuries and some beautifully restored. Folk architecture of perfect proportions with lovely hand carved details. In our wanderings through the countryside we came across white and blue churches, too, with gleaming cupolas and golden altars.They were quite a richly adorned apparition in otherwise poor Delta villages.Turns out the blue communities are the descendants of Russian-Ukrainian Lipoveni, the dissenters (Old Believers) from the Russian Orthodox Church, who in the 18th century wanted to escape the persecution of their sect.

But it was the early morning boat trip to the Delta that sealed the deal. To avoid the tourist trail and explore the smaller channels we first drove a good way on the banks past old homesteads and haystacks to the edge of the water. As we climbed into our small floating boat all the troubles were forgotten and our hearts expanded reveling in Nature’s beauty. We soon turned into smaller and smaller channels Some were so narrow we had to watch for reeds and grasses hitting our faces. We saw water snakes and otters, but it was the abundance of bird life that Delta is famous for that had us transfixed. We were in good hands with our naturalist guide Alma, who seemed as excited for every even small encounter as us. The Danube Delta is where river Danube after flowing through nine European countries ends its journey and flows to the Black Sea. It has the third largest biodiversity in the world (over 5,500 flora & fauna species) spreading over 5,050 square km offering a sanctuary for birds, fish, and animals. Even for non binocular clad non birders the bird encounters are easy and frequent. From small colorful bee eaters to large white tailed eagles birds abound in the quiet of the morning. There are around 300 bird species – and among those, we saw flocks of pelicans, cormorants, wild ducks, geese, storks, herons, ibises, and swans. The Delta is a pleasant resting stop for the migratory birds.  It was especially joyous to observe proud papa swans protecting their young by puffing up and patrolling the waters. Did you know nearly 30 bird species mate for life, amongst them three kinds of swans? Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60% of the Delta is protected from human development and indeed we encountered nary a human being except for a few fishermen. After an exciting day in the Delta appetites are sated by all fish specialties: sliced, diced, smoked, pickled, fried and rolled into phyllo dough. How lucky we have been with the weather! Looks like some rain is coming in. Leaving the Delta it catches up with us just before the Moldova border in the town of Braila on the Danube River. We watch the bride and bridesmaids quickly ushered into a limo and are left with the umbrellas just (singing and) dancing in the rain…

Spectacular Sumba Surprises

It doesn’t happen often, but I am rendered speechless. I don’t even know where to begin. Sumba has proven to be much more than we hoped for- our kind of Travel Paradise.Still replete with old traditions and original village architecture, vast tracts of untouched beaches and unspoiled nature, yet dotted with a few good hotels with hot shower and cold AC. Just enough to make an exploration base and wash off the grime and sweat from the whole day exploring on dusty roads. No Western tourists, (we met less than a dozen in our 8 days on the whole island ), yet a modern 4 wheel drive car with a safe driver, working AC and a decent suspension. And a fabulous local English speaking guide, Yuliana Leda Tara, personable, sharp witted and funny. She made us laugh and she laughed hysterically at our lame jokes. Together we spend many, many hours in the car on some surprisingly straight and good roads and then some pretty curvy and bad roads. Oops!One of the few expats we met (it looks like there are also less than a dozen) said, “One time I drove my family to camp on a beach. It took me 2 hours to go 8 km. But it was worth it!” Yup, totally agree! There are very few cars on the road, but plenty of other traffic, including crazy motorcycle drivers, most of them helmet free, sometimes transporting strange loads, like huge bamboo poles, stacks of bricks or live pigs.

When we would hurl towards yet another one overtaking on a blind curve, we would scream and Yuli would say,

“Old men drive slowly, young fly.”

To which Mirek would reply,

“You have no old drivers on this island. They all die young.”

When an ambulance would pass us by hurriedly, we would ask,

“Why don’t they use the flashing lights?”

“Oh, they only use them if someone is dead.”

And Mirek would say with his typical sense of humor,

“Why? He is not in a hurry, he is dead!”

Then Yuli would howl with laughter and translate for the driver. Then they would laugh together and come up with an explanation,

“We need to know if someone is dead, because there will be a big funeral with free food for everyone!”

Since we first laid eyes on our first sumptuous Sumba ikat weaving, we wanted to go and meet the weavers. I have coveted a particular shell encrusted woven Sumbanese tapestry for some years now. I saw it in the research collection of the Threads of Life Gallery in Ubud and was immediately besotted. I took a photo of it and vowed to find another one. In their public sales gallery I also read the interesting life story and saw a picture of Sumba Queen and weaving legend Tamu Rambu Hamu Eti and said to myself, “One day I want to meet her.”

Stay tuned to see what happened.

So, it was the weaving that enticed us to Sumba and we were prepared for the quality and beauty of this still widely practiced craft, seriously verging on major art. But we were certainly unprepared for the quality and beauty and variety of Sumba beaches.I mean, we just came from some seriously spectacular beaches on New Zealand and Australia but wow, these beaches are something else. Coupled with the fact that there is usually no one else on the beach, but an occasional fisherman or a kid looking to supplement the breakfast offering of rice and water spinach. For miles and miles and miles.

While we never tired of beaches we were in serious danger of getting a traditional village overload. The first one we came to was a surprising travel back in time shocker. Prehistoric megalithic settlement-live! All the museum dioramas and artists renditions in history books we grew up on were coming to life all around us. In a reverse culture shock we strolled around while furtively looking around the back to see where Indiana Jones might emerge from.

After a while the novelty would wear off and yet, just as we said no more villages, no more bloody tombstones, we would come upon another one, a perfect village set perfectly over a lagoon and we would stand there dumbstruck all over again. For a relatively small island the variety of landscapes was astounding. In the drier East Sumba we climbed up to a plateau and a golden savannah opened in front of us. Any minute now we were expecting a giraffe or an elephant popping by. Sorry, just freewheeling falcons and wild horses.In the wetter West Sumba there were rice paddies galore. As we arrived just after the end of the Wet Season the rice harvest was in full swing,

yet some padis were already planted anew and flooded or growing fresh young vibrantly green stalks.

While Sumba is sparsely populated, along the roads there was plenty of life. I am not sure whether there are more horses, buffalos or pigs on Sumba, but cumulatively there are likely more than the human population. Horses are very important to the Sumbanese men and there is a famous Pasola event, that brings together the best and the fiercest of horsemen. Some call this racing and spear throwing, blood drawing orgy a thinly veiled excuse for tribal warfare.

The buffalos are tremendously important not only for farm work but especially for sacrifices. New house, new wife, dead relative, buffalos are to be sacrificed. Pigs were everywhere, under every house in the village. Big potbellied sows walking around jauntily through the village and across the road, little piglets playing together. Dogs, chickens and roosters rounded the picture, and in the absence of toys they were constant play toys for the boys.In fact children on Sumba are likely one of the last free range kids in the world. In the whole time we were there we have not seen one single toy. Not even made out of wood. Sticks, stones, flowers, shells, sand, water. Typically they are also not mollycoddled, they work and help, too. Herding buffalos, washing horses, carrying water, wood and younger siblings. They go hungry at times and they are poor but they cry little and laugh a lot. Is it because they don’t want anything? They do not even know what to want. Outside of main towns there are no TVs, no advertising, no stores, nothing to buy. A few simple stalls here or there by the side of the road sell petrol by the bottle, some tomatoes or a few bunches of bananas. You bet those kids never complain when they get a bowl of rice and on a lucky day some dried fish on top of it.With the houses dark and hot, all the life is lived outside. There is a lot of sitting around on the front porch and watching the world go by. Or Happily waving at us as we pass by.

I think Sumba has the best light, that bathes everything in a special glow. With not a single factory on the island and few cars it could be the lack of pollution? I can’t explain it. It also has fabulous clouds. Maybe it was the tinted windows on the car that made them pop. You be the judge.