Archive for July, 2012

I read perhaps Conrad’s most famous novel, Heart of Darkness (upon which Apocalypse Now is based), a few years ago and it didn’t make too much of an impression on me. (I read it because it was a book Stephen R Donaldson recommended in his Gradual Interview.) I saw this book in a bookshop in Reykjavik and I wanted to buy a cheap book to supplement my travel reading matter. After I bought it, I realised I already had a copy somewhere amongst my possessions back in Britain; for which reason, I handed it on to my friend Botond once I’d finished it.

The novel has many similarities to Heart of Darkness – mainly that is narrated (mostly) by the character Marlow. However, it begins as a third person narrative about the youth of a young seaman made known to the reader only as Jim. Without introduction by the authorial voice, Marlow begins telling Jim’s story to a group of listeners one night. Jim is afflicted – to the core of his being – by being involved in some shameful episode on board a ship for which he served as first mate. The tale is Jim’s attempt to flee from this shame and redeem himself from it.

The first part of the book tells, in a very indirect way, what happened in this shameful incident – revealing one fact crucial to its understanding only two-fifths or more of the way through the novel. In the second part, Jim has taken up work as a trading representative in a native village, apparently somewhere in Indonesia. He is virtually the only white man the locals have ever seen and, when he gains their respect, they start to call him Tuan Jim – Lord Jim. This latter part of the book resembles a kind of benign version of Heart of Darkness. Marlow breaks off his nighttime narrative and only resumes the story in a letter addressed to one of his listeners who took an interest in it.

In some ways, the text is extremely tedious – although it never falls short of an evocative (if slightly prolix) pulchritude. The story is constantly related in a series of sub-stories regarding the other characters from whom Marlow has learned Jim’s story. Even the long interview he has with Jim himself after his appearance at an inquiry flits back and forth between Jim’s words and Marlow interpretation. This is, of course, a crucial part of the author’s intention. The whole story is a matter of hearsay and ambivalence. Even the very moment that Jim commits himself to his shame is related in a way that suggests he wasn’t responsible for his own actions, that his own memory is a narrative he doesn’t quite believe.

The second part of the book is a little more to the point and the dénouement is inevitable and both satisfying and unsatisfying. Given all his self-doubt and the slings and arrows that the world throws at him, Jim finds the only peace he can find. Jim is an unlikely protagonist for a novel – he is continually described as, and shown to be, ineloquent by the loquacious Marlow. He stumbles over his words, he jumps to conclusions only to be embarrassed by them, he is full of juvenile imagination. If he was presented in a happier scenario he would be a lovable character – instead he is desperately pathetic.

So, although it’s slow and verbose (though ultimately not too long), Lord Jim is a great book. It tells a complex, human story in a complex, human way. It reminds the reader that all stories are interpretations – even memories. I enjoyed it a lot, in the end. I’ll have to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and give it another go.

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Katharina, or Aliya, to use her Sufi name, one of the leaders of the camp, took us to the railway station at Biasca and we headed to Zurich for our last night together. We stayed at a hotel – although it described itself as Marc Aurel Apartments on Booking.com (a good website for finding accommodation that I’ve just started using) – that had no reception staff. We had to type part of our reservation number into a machine by the back door (one of the other guests helped us find it), which then produced our key.

We didn’t have long in the city, but, as we’d left early, we had enough time to look around with Isabel, who came over specially from Basel to meet us. We walked around, went to an English language bookshop, Orell Füssli, where I bought the book I’m reading now (you can see the title if you look at the text under my picture at the top right of this page), went to the lake, where the ladies fed crackers and pretzels to a flock of swans that gathered for the feast. Earlier on, I’d bought my ex-girlfriend a Swiss Army Knife as an early birthday present (she later reported that it had been stolen from her suitcase when she flew home).

Isabel went home and we returned to our room. In the morning we exchanged rather strained farewells, and thus ended another phase in both our travels and our lives. She took a train to the airport to fly to the States; I took a series of trains east through Switzerland, through the whole of Austria and arrived in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia once again. Botond picked me up late that evening and I spent nearly two weeks staying with him and travelling together at the weekends.

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Campra is a tiny place, evidently no more than a few houses and a restaurant and guesthouse, along with the building we stayed in, in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton, Ticino. We took a couple of trains and a couple of buses to get there from Basel, passing some stunning rock formations and a huge dam along the way. We arrived on a Saturday, the day before the official start of the work camp – and the only duty required on Sunday was to attend the meeting in the evening – so it was a relaxed start to our time there.

My girlfriend – my <i>ex</i>-girlfriend; I still haven’t quite got used to that (we basically split up in Basel, but there wasn’t any question on my part of us not going to the camp together) – took on a partial managerial rôle in the kitchen. Cooking was done on a voluntary basis; some people didn’t cook at all, some – like me – cooked two or three times a my ex-girlfriend helped prepare one meal a day (apart from weekends). Also, she was tasked with keeping an eye on the food in the pantry, what was going off and should be used, what needed ordering and so on. Some brave souls volunteered to do breakfasts – which involved getting up at the crack of dawn and also preparing the morning and afternoon tea breaks; the quid pro quo for this service was having half a day off.

The work was to set up the structures for the forthcoming four-week camp, the Zenith Institute (a name that sounds like something out of <i>Lost</i>). These included about a dozen large platforms, on which pavilion-like tents were erected. Actually, as we left after two and a half weeks, this was all we saw, and it wasn’t finished at that. There were also a greater number of a smaller platforms holding accommodation tents to be put up later.

(Our original plan had been to spend three months there participating in the build, the camp itself and the take-down stages. When my now ex-girlfriend was planning her flight home, I did some research into the Schengen Area and found that doing so would have gone well beyond the 90-days-per-180-days limit for non-EU/EEA citizens (most of the places we’d been to on the trip had been within Schengen). Technically, we also both needed visas to do voluntary work in Switzerland, but we had neither time nor inclination to apply for them.)

Weekdays began with breakfast being announced at 7:30 am. (This announcement took the form of a single toll of a bell – made from the top part of a heavy gas cylinder; the clapper was a big mallet; they hung just outside the front door. The announcement itself was announced by two gongs five minutes beforehand, and those were prefigured by three bells ten minutes earlier still. So it went fifteen minutes before the meal or activity, three rings of the bell; five minutes before, two rings; one ring at the start. If you were standing near to it, the bell could be extremely loud – there were a pair of protective headphones hanging with the mallet for the bell ringers. On the one occasion when I rang the bell, the first peal surprised me with its volume and I overcompensated with the second toll, making it much too quiet; my third ring was nearly the same volume as the first. I wasn’t the only person who experienced this.)

Work officially began at 8:30, although not with work. Everyone gathered in a circle outside the building, held hands and sang a song. Then, continuing to hold hands, the details of the coming period were announced by Nirtan, one of the three staff members organising things. The twenty to thirty people present were divided into groups – those working in the house making lunch, dinner or preparing the tea break drinks and snacks; and those working on various tasks relating to the camp: constructing platforms, loading beams, boards and equipment from the garages and into the small, flat bed lorry and so on. The morning circle ended with the Sufi invocation.

We worked until 10:30 then had a tea break. This consisted of lots of urns and flasks of teas and coffee, along with bread and sandwich fillings, fruit, vegetables and often biscuits and chocolate. The we worked from 11:00 to 12:30, I think, with lunch at 12:45. Lunch was usually salad and soup and maybe another dish. Meals were laid out on a long table inside the house, buffet-style. They were usually eaten at the tables and benches outside.

Afternoon work started at 2:30 with another ring o’ hippies meeting. We worked till 4:00, had tea break till 4:30, worked till 6:30 (usually more like 6:15) and had dinner at 7:15. Then there was sometimes an activity in the evening, starting at 8:30.

All of these began with the circle meeting, which began with a song. I didn’t like – or even agree with – these songs and I didn’t join in. They were acts of worship – and there’s not a real or imaginary thing in the universe that deserves to be worshipped. Some of them were in Arabic, the tunes of which had an undoubted exotic beauty, the words generally revolved around ‘Allah’ – which makes you realise how close the Arab word for God is to the singsong syllable ‘la’ (surely not an etymological coincidence). ‘Allah, Allah, Allah’ has a much better ring to it than ‘God, God, God’.

Others were in English and basically went, ‘Happy, happy, nice, nice, la, la, la.’ One had the words, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eyes/Praise the name of the Lord.’ I wanted to reword it, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eye/Marvel at the thermonuclear reactions that make the sun a luminous ball of plasma around which our pale blue dot, the Earth, orbits at an ideal distance for life to evolve and thrive.’ Or maybe just, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eyes/Someone draw the fucking curtains!’

As you can see, I thought these songs were pretty lame – and a fulfilment of the stereotype of hippies as people who stand in a circle holding hands, singing bland, platitudinous songs. One that I kind of did like was what may have been a Native American chant and simple dance about the four elements – I can imagine teaching it to little kids in Korea.

I could easily have avoided them altogether – they weren’t mandatory and I did, in fact, do that a few times – but they weren’t that unpleasant, really. As a way of instilling group identity, I suppose you could do worse. There are not many groups that I identify with.

One of the evening activities was zikr, a kind of meditation. I took part in the session in the second week. It involved singing in a circle again, this time seated in the ‘carpet room’ (a big room above the office and some of the storage space; it had a carpet). It was more in-depth than that at the regular meetings. An Arabic phrase, something to do with God, is repeated over and over – the number of repetitions counted off on beads.

Although it’s essentially a continuous repetition of one of those haunting Middle Eastern melodies, it’s given depth by improvised changes of harmony. The fifteen or twenty people taking part might all start off in unison, then someone might sing thirds, someone might sing a slightly different tune and so on. The result is pretty amazing.

The singing was led by Nirtan with directions such as, ‘Just the men’, ‘Just the women,’ ‘Quietly’, ‘Rock back and forth’. At the beginning he directed people to imagine the ghost of prophets in the room. At the end he asked us to hold hands and imagine positive energy flowing into us from the person on the left and out of us to the person on the right. I tried to do this for a moment then gave it up as pointless and rather ridiculous.

So I think this is what spirituality is – a combination of beauty, imagination and emotion. The zikr was enjoyable enough, but I wasn’t passionate about it. With practice, I’m sure I could call to my senses the feeling of some sort of energy moving through my body, the same way evangelical Christians train themselves to have conversations with ‘God’. But that’s not a goal I’m interested in directing my imagination towards. I have no reason to think that ‘spirituality’ is anything other than a specious concept, used only to put certain experiences on a pedestal beyond the reach of critical examination. The zikr was beautiful, but it was also nothing more than a bunch of voices making a bunch of noises – in the same way that the <i>Mona Lisa</i> is just a bunch of dabs of paint and <i>Moby Dick</i> is just a bunch of words.

Another evening programme was something called sharing. I took part in this in the first week. Everyone sat in a circle in the carpet room and, one by one, volunteered anything they wanted to share with the group. The first few people talked about how happy they were to be there. I said something similar: everyone was very nice, I was happy to be there, the landscape was great – the way it rose up in a steep slope on the other side of the valley reminded me of <i>Inception</i> where the city folds up in front of the characters (I’m not sure anyone was impressed with this last point). My ex-girlfriend had some heartfelt things to say about our relationship. The difference between us being, I suppose, that I was sharing with a bunch of strangers and she was sharing with a group of friends.

Still, the exercise seemed like potentially a very helpful one. It reminded me a lot of workshops I’d been in in writers’ groups and seminars at university.

Other things going on in the evening included a sauna once a week and a campfire on Saturday evenings. At weekends, there were also opportunities to go hiking in the region. One weekend, we were driven round the back of the mountain ridge that looked over the camp and we walked to a little hut right on the edge – we were able to look down on the camp a kilometre or more below. It was like playing <i>Populus</i>. Then we walked along the ridge. We headed off by ourselves to return to Campra; the trail – marked by red and white stripes painted on rocks – seemed to go too far the wrong way, so we went cross-country along animal trails, climbing through tree branches and over muddy slopes; we saw a couple of very large deer. Eventually, after a long and moderately arduous trek, we got on a track that led to the road that led to the camp. The following weekend, we went swimming to a stretch of river – well, I kept my clothes on and read my book on the river bank.

The work itself was quite enjoyable, although tought at first. The tough bit involved carrying lots up wood up hills. The camp was a short distance from the house at Campra. When we walked up there together we were confused, as there was no apparent area for tents and suchlike. Instead, there was a handful of cottages (if your hands were big enough to hold entire houses) and an uneven slope leading up to a wooded area. There were cows.

On the first Monday, the cows were taken to greener pastures by their owners, and we started work. Most of the platforms were to be built among the knolls and hillocks of the uneven slope, with a few others in clearings further off in the trees. While others were loading the truck down near the house, I was part of the large team sorting and carrying wood from the pile they were left in front of one of the cottages to the locations of the various platforms. It was exhausting. If you get the balance of a beam, joist or board right, it’s not difficult to carry, but it’s hard work walking up hill with all that extra weight.

After all or most of the timber was put in the right place, construction started. Short, vertical beams formed the legs and long ones, the basis of the floor. Parallel floor beams were carefully aligned with measuring boards, kept in place temporary boards and hammered level with big mallets. Then joists were put into place while the temporary connecting boards were removed and attached diagonally between the legs. Floor boards or wider, shorter floor plates were then screwed into place on top, and a ten erected on top of that. Everyone was armed with a ‘green machine’ – a green, battery-powered power drill – and handfuls of screws of various lengths.

The one tent I helped erect was the tea tent. We put together the roof structure first – lots of metal poles. Then the roof fabric was placed on top. Then, starting at one end with everyone helping, we lifted it up and put in the legs. Then the tent walls were attached. One other task I took part in was a day of clearing saplings and small trees from areas that were supposed to be open. In one area, we carried them along a track to the side of the little road leading to the camp; in another location, we simply tossed them over a cliff.

The people, as I indicated, were all very nice. There were lots of German-speakers – lots of Germans and Swiss and one or two Austrians – a handful of Spaniards (a couple of whom I disliked at first – they were loud and overly happy, annoyingly full of beans – but I grew to like them), a couple of Poles, and the odd Frenchwoman, Dutchwoman and Israeli. The aforementioned Nirtan was Belgian (and probably still is). There were plenty of young (or at least youngish; I suppose I might just fit into that category) people and a moderate spread of people of middle-aged and older. The person I liked most was a German woman in her fifties – she was very friendly, sweet and easy to talk to.

Being who I am, with all my prejudices and fears, I’m not surprised that I didn’t make any geniune friends there. I’m pretty picky about people I befriend and spending a brief time with someone, or a group of someones, who I’ll likely never see again doesn’t inspire me to make much effort to socialise.

But, on the whole, it was a good experience. I tried some stuff I’d never done before – construction work, the zikr meditation – and the environment was pretty spectacular. The cooking was generally great, too – despite there being problems with food going off in the un-refrigerated larders. I began the camp with the biggest beard that I’d ever grown and, halfway through, shaved it off in stages, taking daily pictures of the different styles. In terms of our relationship, it was a complex time and one that I may talk about in the future, but, for now, it’s too soon.

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This was another book I got from Lawrence on my recent visit to Bristol – and the second Self novel I’ve read – the other being How the Dead Live. This book – and this review – is probably not for the faint-hearted.

Simon Dykes is an artist – a human artist – living and working in London – a human London. One morning, after a night of debauchery and a strange dream, he wakes up to find himself in a world of chimpanzees. His girlfriend’s place has been taken by a chimpanzee; chimpanzee paramedics come to take him to a chimpanzee hospital; he becomes the swansong project of a controversial chimpanzee psychologist, Zach Busner. Simon is now a chimp living in a chimp world – but he still remembers and believes in his own humanity. The novel is a dual quest: Zach’s is to understand Simon’s apparent psychosis, while Simon’s is to reconcile his human mind with his chimp reality.

The most striking thing about Great Apes is the level of thought that has put into creating a chimpanzee-dominated world. In some ways, it’s exactly the same as the human one: the course of history, political geography, names, people, companies – these are all exactly as in the world Simon remembers. However, chimps behave in some significantly different ways. They live in extended family groups or communities. Physical violence is the normal way of asserting dominance. They eat two or three breakfasts, lunches and dinners every day. They use their feet almost as much as their hands. They communicate with sign language; their vocalisations are used mostly as a kind of punctuation. Most notably, sex is ubiquitous.

Chimpanzees wear clothing only on their top halves – trousers or leggings are their equivalent of bondage gear (which leads to embarrassment when Simon demands pants in the hospital). The only exception to this is females’ ‘swelling protectors’, which they wear over their genitals (a gay male character also sports one). Any female, when in oestrus, is receptive to sex with pretty much anyone. An attractive female (or, rather, a female with a beautiful, engorged vagina) causes a queue of males to form on the steps of a Tube station.

Sex and physical chastisement are essential to a chimp’s well-being. Simon’s girlfriend – the chimp version – suffers from a lack of self-worth because her mother didn’t hit her enough and her father didn’t fuck her enough.

In addition to sex and violence, various forms of grooming are part of the social lubrication of the chimp world. A junior chimp meeting a senior one will turn around and raise its bottom, presenting its ‘ischial pleat’ for the other to pat, kiss or pick out bits of poo from. Friends will gently hold each others’ scrotums. And so on and so forth.

Self has constructed a whole vocabulary to express chimp-specific ideas and activities: chimps have ‘chimpunity’, not humanity; they indulge in ‘human business’ rather than monkey business; instead of handling things, they ‘footle’ them. The way chimpanzees praise each other is full of playful language: ‘Simonkins’, ‘your arseholiness’. In addition, lots of technical language is used: there are no men and women, but males and females ranked alpha, beta etc; as a show of aggression, they horripilate – ie, they make their fur stand on end by giving themselves goose pimples. This nomenclature sits a little uneasily with some of the other, less formal, more naturalistic lexical choices.

So, it’s a fascinating premise, but I don’t think it quite lives up to this promise. The course of Simon’s acceptance of his new reality is generally well measured, though a little abrupt in one or two places. A sub-plot involving a planned take-over of Zach Busner’s community is ultimately anti-climactic. The novel goes on and on a lot, taking its time to amount to much. The female characters are not terribly interesting, and, from a human point of view, the female chimps get a pretty raw deal – vaginal bleeding from too much sex being an uncomfortably graphic example.

The ultimate conclusion of the novel could also be seen as anti-climactic, but I think it’s a natural, understated way to end things. It’s a very readable book, full of earthy, inventive language and ridiculous situations. It also makes you think about the way we look at chimps and the other great apes – chimpanzees see humans as pretty brute, comical creatures; chimp infants have human stuffed toys, infant humans (clothed only on their top halves) are the stars of PG Tips adverts. There, but for a quirk of evolutionary history, go we.

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The family with whom we stayed in Basel were a family that my girlfriend had been an au pair for several years ago in New Jersey. They consisted of the mum, the dad – who’s worked for a pharmeceutical company in Switzerland for a couple of years – and the young twins, a boy and a girl. They were a nice family – the kids, especially, were charming and full of life.

H was quite happy that we would be spending a week and a half with them. We spent a fair amount of time at hanging out at home. The family’s son and I built a structure out of simple wooden building blocks; we promised to work on another design, but never did. We watched Spaceballs (only a fraction as good as I remember it being), played card games, cooked and ate food.

We didn’t do too much earnest sight-seeing in Basel. We went for a walk around with H’s friend on our first day there, stopping for a champagne truffle from a fancy chocolate shop and to have a look at the rich red town hall.

On another occasion, we took the tram to a suburb called Therwil to watch the son play baseball. H, her friend and I wandered away from the pitch to walk between some nearby fields and pick strawberries.

Another day, we met Isabel, the Basler we’d befriended in Iceland, and her friend Lukas and they took us around. We took one of the small ferries across the Rhine – the boat was connected to a line strung across the river and moved perpendicular to the flow simply by angling its hull one way or another, like a sail in the wind.

We also went to the Basel Paper Mill, a museum housed in an old paper mill dedicated to the history of paper, writing and printing. Although not a big place, it was pretty comprehensive – although the section about modern printing was perhaps too comprehensive (how many printing machines does one need to look at?). It also had lots of hands on stuff to do – from interactive displays that ask you questions and have windows, doors and rollable drums with answers, to activities like calligraphy and paper-making. We both had a go at Japanese calligraphy and each made a sheet of paper from a vat full of watery pulp.

Another time, we took a couple of the family’s bikes and rode out into the countryside, through Therwil and beyond.

Towards the end of our stay, the mum told us that she had a friend who had spare VIP tickets for Art Basel, the ‘Olympics of the art world’. The three of us spent an afternoon wandering around the two buildings – one large building holding a vast array of works by different artists organised by gallery (thus, pieces by the same artist cropped up in various random places) and one hangar-like building adjacent to the first that housed larger artworks.

The whole place was bustling. H’s friend enjoyed pointing out people from the ‘New York’ contingent – expensively over-dressed arty types. Many of the works looked nice, but weren’t too interesting. Some, though, were pretty good. A lot of the stuff in the hangar was impressive for its sheer size. One piece from New Zealand caught my eye because it had some Metallica-related stuff, but it was otherwise uninteresting. The whole experience was reminiscent of being in a popular art gallery – except that it was well-lit and taking photographs was practically de rigeur.

Although we liked Basel and the people, it was not the happiest stop on our trip – we had a bit of a relationship crisis to deal with.

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The day after we got back to Reykjavik, we took it fairly easy. We returned the car to the rental place at the city airport. We went to the flea market – which is held at weekends in a big hall near the harbour – where Habiba bought herself a nice, blue Icelandic woolly jumper. We got hotdogs from a nearby stand that is apparently quite famous; they have a framed photo of Bill Clinton eating there. The hotdogs were pretty bland. We hung out in the Harpa for a bit, taking pictures. Later, we walked out to a beach; there was no way down to the sand apart from climbing down the breakwater-like embankment of boulders. We stayed up top.

The following day, we went on a whale-watching trip, on a boat out into the bay. (This trip was a change to our – well, Habiba’s – expectations. She’d had her heart set on going to the Blue Lagoon, a fancy geothermal spa that’s actually formed from the run-off from a power plant. When I’d told her a day or two before that I wasn’t interested in going there, she’d got upset and told me I needed to bring up my thoughts and objections much earlier – which was a fair point: I’m pretty scared of any face-to-face conflict. She gave up her plans for the Blue Lagoon in favour of going on the boat ride – and I think she didn’t regret it in the end.) We got 10% off with our Europcar coupons; we paid about £35 each, I think.

We boarded the boat, entering through another boat converted into a gift shop with a whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. We got on board early and snagged places for ourselves at the back of the upper deck. First stop on the trip was ‘Puffin Island’. The guide told everyone that puffin numbers had collapsed in recent years, but that this year there seemed to be a lot more around. We didn’t get to see them close up, but there were lots of them on the small island, more in the water around it and plenty flying to and from the islet, zipping through the air close to surface of the sea.

Next, the boat headed further out into the bay (Reykjavik actually means ‘smoke bay’ – because of the geothermal activity the first settlers saw when they arrived). The guide told to that we would probably spend an hour, maybe two, searching for whales. However, within half an hour we encountered a few minke whales feeding. The guide was very impressed with how quickly we found them and how many we saw; the three-hour trip lasted only two and a half hours for this reason. the guide was kept busy letting everyone know where the whales could be found.

There were maybe half a dozen to ten whales around the boat at various distances – sometimes as close as ten or twenty metres. They swam mostly in straight lines, surfacing a few times in relatively quick succession then arching their backs to dive deeper to feed. Predicting when and where a whale would surface became quite an entertaining guessing game, standing there ready with your camera focused on a patch of sea, set to infinite burst. The limitations of our cameras made it a little frustrating trying to get perfect shots. Still, it was a great experience. On the way back, we saw a distant seal.

In the afternoon, we went to the Reykjavik Art Museum building near the harbour. Habiba was particularly entranced by a house made of wool. I liked the room of works about the USA/USSR summit held in Iceland; there was an interactive piece that measured facial expressions; another focused on the intrigue surrounding a missing Tom and Jerry video tape.

The day after that, we got up early to go on a six-hour tour of the Golden Circle – some of the main natural attraction in Iceland within easy driving distance of the capital. We got picked up at our hostel by one bus, taken a few metres down the road and asked to transfer to another bus, our actual tour bus. The driver narrated most of the journey and he was very charismatic, full of dry humour as well as lots of facts.

First stop was Kerið, a little volcano with a caldera lake – more of a pond, actually.

A little further down the road, we stopped to take a few pictures of Faxifoss, a wide waterfall with a salmon lift – a kind of stream-cum-staircase – thoughtfully constructed to one side.

Next, we visited Geysir, the geysir from which we get the word ‘geysir’. The Geysir geysir itself doesn’t erupt any more since an earthquake that presumably changed the underground watercourses. Instead, water periodically spouts from the Strokkur geysir – every four to ten minutes, maybe. Shorter intervals between eruptions result in smaller spouts. We were there for an hour – including time in the visitor centre – so we saw it go up several times.

After that, we headed to Gullfoss (‘gold waterfall’), a large, split-level waterfall that has a very convenient rock outcrop right next to both stages of the fall.

The driver had promised to try to find somewhere to stop so we could see, pet, take pictures of Icelandic horses. These are a special breed of equine for a couple of reasons: they have six gaits (instead of the normal four – walk, trot, canter, gallop), the extra ones (the tölt and the skeið) being, apparently, very smooth and ideally suited to travelling over rocky ground; they are smaller than most horses and are able to lie on their sides and even roll over – something other breeds can’t do without rupturing their innards. They are keenly protected and once one leaves the country it can’t come back.

Finally, we went to Þingvellir (‘THING-vet-leer’), the site of the original Icelandic parliament or Althing, the world’s oldest currently sitting parliament (it dates from the 10th century). There was no building at the original site – it was just a meeting place. The place is very interesting, though – it’s in a rift valley formed by the movement of the European and North America continental plates moving away from each other.

We stopped in the valley – for far too short a time – then again up at the top of the cliff. And then it was time to return to Reykjavik. It was a very satisfying tour.

The next day, we got picked up again, ferried to a larger bus and taken to Keflavik Airport. From there, we flew to Gatwick. I waited about half an hour or so for Habiba to clear the queue and Immigration; she talked to the officer about the flagging of her passport and was reassured that it was nothing too serious – it just told future officers what had happened previously. Then we caught our separate flight to Basel, where Habiba’s friend picked us up and took us to her home.

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For the remainder of our time in Iceland, we originally planned to spend some time near Lake Myvatn in the centre north of the country. We realised, though, that it would be very expensive to stay there and difficult to get around. We arranged, instead, to spend most of our last few days in Reykjavik – but not before spending a night in Akureyri, a large (by Icelandic standards – 18,000 people) town in the north.

To get there, Habiba found us a car-sharing ride via a website for exactly this purpose. It turned out that the guy was not only taking us to Akureyri, but moving a portion of his belongings to Reykjavik, carrying another traveller to Reykjavik and picking up two more when he dropped us off. When we saw his car, we didn’t realise there was another person along for the ride – and it didn’t even look like it would take the two of us and all our stuff. The boot was nearly full and there was a pile of stuff occupying passenger space in the back. However, we moved stuff around, the other guy – a Briton – sat in the front with his backpack, my backpack was squeezed in between the back seat pile and the roof of the car, the driver unloaded a few board games back at his Egilsstaðir home and Habiba and I squashed ourselves in with our smaller bags by our feet or in the space behind the handbrake.

The ride to Akureyri was pleasant. We chatted a little, the driver played some good music (some Queen, a bit of Rammstein – I was happy) and we stopped at a couple of interesting places. The first of these was the mudpots at Námafjall (‘á’ is pronounced like the ‘ow’ in ‘town’ (and you’ll remember that ‘ll’ is ‘tl’)). These mudpots are small craters full of grey, bubbling mud and they emit steamy clouds with the juicy bad egg smell of sulphur.

The second place was Goðafoss, a waterfall that looked like a scaled down Niagara Falls and was so-called because an early convert to Christianity tossed his pagan statues into the water there. There was one outcropping of rock that looked out over the basin and looked like an inviting place to stand. To get there, though, you had to cross a delta of rivulets by leaping from rock to rock – not so easy when you’re wearing a small, but heavily packed backpack.

In Akureyri, we had a couple of beds booked at Akureyri Backpackers, the local branch of the hostel we stayed at and would stay at again in Reykjavik. It was a much nicer place than the capital’s version – newly opened (it smelled of paint and work was still being carried out in places) and, with its pristine white walls and its wood floors, good enough to be a hotel. We were told when we checked in that they’d double booked our beds so we were upgraded for free to a twin room.

Leaving the hostel to check out the bus station for travel the following day, we saw Isabel and Dylan, who had left the farm a few days before us. We hung out together for a while; we got curries from a little Indian takeaway – my vindaloo tasted all right, but wasn’t very spicy. Later, Habiba and I went to the botanical gardens together.

The next day, we began to carry out our plan to hitchhike all the way from Akureyri to Reykjavik. We got up nice and early and started waiting by the main road going through the town (Highway 1, the ringroad circling the whole country) at around nine o’clock. We took note of the traffic lights with the heart-shaped red lights. I’d been pretty sceptical about the project, but Habiba’s enthusiasm brought me on board. No one picked us up and I argued that we’d stand a better chance if we walked further through the town in the direction of the capital.

We made our way to the hostel that Dylan and Isabel had been staying at. While waiting – Habiba wielding a piece of paper with ‘REYKJAVIK’ written on it – a couple of cyclists told us that we should try further along the road, so we moved on to the last major junction in the town. And we waited. And waited. Eventually, I told Habiba we should cut our losses and stop at midday and make other plans; she reluctantly agreed. At about 11:55, a couple of lads in a 4×4 told us they could take us about sixty kilometres to their village. We needed to go about 300 km and, given our track record up to then, it seemed a less than certain prospect that we would secure further rides.

So at noon, we started to pick up our bags. Just then, Isabel and Dylan drove past in their rental car. They waved to suggest they’d come around and get us. They were on their way to a music shop; they didn’t have plans to travel to Reykjavik, but they took us with them and then dropped us at Europcar, where we could get our own vehicle. Bus tickets to Rekjavik would have been 11,800 kronur each (£59), if I remember rightly – and the bus only left once a day at eight thirty in the morning, necessitating another night in Akureyri. Renting a small car for twenty-four hours cost 20,000 (£100), although we had to return it with a full tank of petrol.

So we (by which I mean Habiba) drove to Reykjavik. Habiba needed to stop frequently at first so we could take pictures of the beautiful, mountainous countryside. I was on navigation duty; not a difficult task, but we tried to keep track of how far we’d gone and when the next petrol station would come up. With the car, we got a book of vouchers – one of which we made use of for 10% off a whale-watching trip – and three coupons for free coffee at N1 petrol stations. At the first rest stop we made, we discovered that the N1 cappuccinos were disgusting. I got filter coffee next time.

We drove between mountains carved out by glaciation – sometimes rocky, sometimes grassy, sometimes scree sloped – through old lava fields grown over with moss and past fjords cut into the gentle grass- and farmland. Unlike the east of the country, there weren’t many trees – perhaps the reforestation project wasn’t focused here. The drive took something like six hours – maybe a bit longer and concluded with a three kilometre drive under the bay to the north of the capital. The walls of the tunnel were rough ripples of rock, making it seem like you were traversing a natural cave.

We parked up on Laugavegur (‘au’ is apparently pronounced, according to one guide I read, like ‘furry’ without the ‘f’ or ‘r’ sounds, and, as I mentioned in a previous post, the ‘g’s are silent; which basically makes the name of this street an ‘l’ followed by a blur of vowels, punctuated with a ‘v’: ‘Ləəəvəər’) and checked back in to Reykjavik Backpackers for four nights.

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