I have been home from my two-week trip to Iceland for two weeks now and finished going through all the photos I took, all 4,500 of them. I pulled the best ones to post in my travel section, and looking at all the photos keeps bringing my thoughts back to Iceland. It was such an amazing trip. I saw many things I don’t normally see like puffins, whales, geysers, waterfalls, and more, more, more, more waterfalls, boiling mud pots, lava formations, beautiful coastline, a natural thermal pool in a cave, a stunningly beautiful historic site sitting at the separation of two tectonic plates, an iceberg filled lagoon at the base of a glacier, a wonderful, major tourist attraction, thermal pool made from a power plant’s wastewater, Iceland’s capital and largest city, its next largest city, several small towns, and so much more. I also experienced many adventures that I don’t normally get to do like SCUBA diving an absolutely gorgeous site in 2°C crystal-clear water and hiking up a glacier in crampons. I also, to a very small extent, got to see some of the differences between the way people in Iceland and the USA live, both from the perspective as an ordinary American and as an engineer. What do I mean, from the perspective of an engineer?
1. Most of the bridges in Iceland are one lane. I find this absolutely fascinating. They obviously did the calculations and decided that the roads, including the Ring Road, the major road that circles the island, get so little traffic that two lanes are not necessary. Also, Icelandic drivers are rather polite. You get to a bridge, and if a car is coming in the opposite direction, you simply wait until it crosses, to cross the bridge. When you approach a bridge, you slow down and make sure no one is coming or if they are, you figure out who will reach the bridge first to decide who goes first. This would never work in the USA.
2. Even better than the one lane bridges is the one lane tunnels. I am still flabbergasted by them. There are actually a few one lane tunnels in Iceland, but the one I went through was Vestfjarðagöng. There are three roads that go into and out of Ísafjörður in the Westfjords, and all three go through a tunnel. The road that goes to the south goes through the Vestfjarðagöng tunnel. Leaving Ísafjörður, the tunnel is at first two lanes for about 2 km, and then you get to an intersection. The tunnel has an intersection. I’ve never been in a tunnel with an intersection before. It’s amazing. Then after the intersection, we kept going straight to the south. At that point, the tunnel becomes one lane with a turn off to the right every third km or so (perhaps more). I was driving, and I had to turn off several times for oncoming traffic. I must say to, in the tunnel, it was all the more difficult to determine distances and how soon I needed to pull off. This one lane tunnel lasts for about 3 km. Later that day when we were driving back to Ísafjörður, I encountered oncoming traffic once, and they pulled off before I could figure out if I was supposed to since I would have to cross their lane of traffic to do so. I am still not entirely sure what the rules of the road are in that situation. If I had known something like that existed, I would have studied on rules of the road for it. Again, one lane tunnels would never work in the USA.
3. Not all their roads are paved, and I don’t mean their tiny, never used private roads. The Ring Road is not paved in sections. I can understand from a maintenance standpoint why, but from a car maintenance and safety standpoint, I can’t.
4. They don’t really believe in guardrails for roads. There were a few spots where they actually did have a guardrail, but they were few and far between. The roads that climb up their mountains going through many switchbacks rarely have guardrails even though there are seriously steep drops on the side. The roads are even more fun when they are unpaved with no guardrails. This does force the driver to take extra care when driving, but it is still scary as hell. Of course they do have helpful little yellow, flexible markers on the side to sort of alert you to the whole don’t fall down the side of the mountain thing.
5. Not only is most electricity generated from geothermal heat, but in some places, the hot water also comes from geothermal heat. In Reykjavik, pipes deliver hot water (groundwater heated at the geothermal plant) directly to the houses and businesses. There are of course separate pipes for the cold water. How awesome must it be to not need a water heater and get endless hot water?
Those are some things that particularly fascinate me as an engineer. Some other observations include.
6. There are a lot of sheep in Iceland, and the sheep seem to regard fences are mere suggestions. The rural areas of Iceland (i.e. the vast majority of it) has a lot of farms with sheep and other animals. The farms have lovely fences. Most of the animals are in fact behind the fences. However a certain percentage of the sheep don’t really care to be fenced in. As we drove the Ring Road, we constantly saw sheep between the road and fence where the majority of the sheep were safely grazing. We never saw sheep in the road, so evidently the sheep are fairly smart, but still, we found the number of the sheep outside the fence to be funny.
7. Iceland is the land of waterfalls. You can’t go five minutes without seeing one. After a while, you start to ignore the ones that aren’t really big or have some unique feature. We saw so many waterfalls that we started driving right past the “normal” ones. These normal ones being ones that in many places would be their own tourist attraction. We passed many farms with a waterfall in their backyard. The beauty was insane.
8. Shops in Iceland have shorter business hours and are only open from about 9 or 10 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. This did not appear to be a thing that changed once it was officially tourist season. While I appreciate the employees and owners wanting a normal work day, from the perspective of a tourist, it was really annoying because if you are sightseeing all day, by the time you return, everything is closed. You need to leave a day to just shop.
9. Food is really expensive there, but the food is wonderful. Also, everyone in Iceland seems to make incredible bread. Also, the Skyr yogurt is awesome. Really, pretty much all the food was great.
10. Icelanders are very nice and helpful. The vast majority of them speak English and are patient, helpful, and have a sense of humor about people trying to say a word or two of Icelandic and, at least in my case, failing miserably. Side note: We read that the closest English way to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted there in 2010 and messed up air traffic across the globe, is “hey I forgot my yogurt.” I relayed this to an Icelander who laughed a great deal and said that was actually not a bad way to learn to say it.
11. There is evidently very little crime in Iceland. I saw a total of 8 police cars the entire time I was there. In several cities, we did pass what was clearly the police station, but seeing an actual police officer or car was rare.
In summary, Iceland is incredible. Go visit if you can.