ICELAND Day 4: The Cave, The Shark, And The Only Girl in The World
“It was the extreme eating challenge that saw even Gordon Ramsay crumble. Hákarl, Iceland’s Viking dish of fermented shark, inspires F-words in almost everyone but the locals, who see past the ammonia whiff to the dish’s surprisingly mild flesh. Made by burying basking shark meat underground for three months, then hanging it to dry for five, Hakarl forms part of the midwinter Thorrablot feast (alongside pickled ram’s testicles) but can be found at supermarkets year round. A shot or five of brennvin, the local spirit, supplies courage.”
Hilary Armstrong, MSN Travel contributor
I wish I could remember our tour guide’s name. I’m pretty sure it sounded like a Swedish cough drop after a giant stomped on it. He stood about 5 ft smaller than me, blond surfer type crossbred with a garden gnome. He already had most of his cave hiking gear on like had he just woke up wearing it. Who is this prepared at 8am? This Norwegian guy… A low talker who was giving me back pains from leaning in to hear his cave dwelling wisdom. I was excited as I was scared, Kara was just excited, smiling from ear to ear like someone had masturbated her Pokemon. How was this little blonde hair ball wearing Patagonia hiking gear going to rescue us if this cave caved in or some Nordic volcano wolf attacked us? Kara and I were the only two people on this tour. No witnesses! I’ve seen True Blood before and this was not good. After surveying the surrounding area I was convinced absolutely nothing was alive anywhere near where we were for miles, just a vast volcano field with mountains and moss as its only active resident. Now Kate Moss would have been cooler, but I doubt she would ever come to Iceland. Scoring here was as easy as a man in child-birth.
“So there’s nothing alive around here?”
“See the patterns of molten rocks? When settlers would travel from town to town at night they thought those molten formations of rocks where trolls frolicking in the fields…”
Kara is just bobble-heading along. We adjust our spelunking gear and begin to follow the surfer gnome down the cave.
“You see Iceland has a rich history of mythology and stories based around trolls, witches, and fairies…”
That was probably the last word I heard being that our guide’s idea of sharing information was whispering it. The cave was immaculate… at first. Then it started to get tiny. The vast opening we entered started to look like if we had just died and were walking away from the light. We went from standing to walking crouched down to being on our knees to doing the worm on our bellies. Soon the only thing we could see was whatever our uncomfortable head light would show us. Ohhhhhh look stalagmites. Ahhhhhhh sedimentary rocks. Ooooooooh some dead mangled animal bones in the corner…
“Hahahaha don’t worry that was probably a pony or a dog that came down here years ago to escape lava or some other animal…”
“But I thought you said nothing lives out here???”
He gives us a award-winning gnome smile, pulls out a thermostat, and pours us a cup of hot chocolate. I’m amazed how hot it is considering that he must have filled it at least 4 hours ago and it’s about 30 degrees outside. A supernatural thermostat! He then asked the both of us to turn off our headlights. I’m apprehensive at first but looking at my bobble headed girlfriend, who is way to thrilled to be human, I man up and do so. Soon enough the conversation got weird… in the dark weird.
“…So the settlers would travel from town to town during really harsh winters. Every once in a while they would come across a dead traveler along the road. Now it is customary in Nordic tradition not to leave the body on the road. You were to take them home and wait till the priest came by to give it its last rites. After a couple of hours the host would wake up to a rustling in his house and discover the dead traveler moaning and rummaging around… ZOMBIES.”
My senses are turned up to 10. I can smell the rocks and sense their locations. In my head I can hear the zombies hobbling through the cave coming to get us… I saw those bones, they didn’t belong to the Elephant Man that’s for sure, or maybe they did?! You would think the entire world would open up once the absence of vision kicked in but no, the cave was now my coffin. I squeezed the shit out of Kara’s hand. Way to go OJ, your first overseas trip and you get killed by a Zombie from your overactive imagination.
“Soooooo Iceland had Zombies?”
“No, it was all just hypothermia. This is before medicine was as advanced as it is now. The settlers would constantly think they were under attack by the undead. Soon they stopped waiting for the priest and would just bury whatever body they found along the road. Then they learned about hypothermia. Still they weren’t convinced that the “dead” was just people in a cold coma so they would bury them with a string attached to their wrist. The other end of the string would be tied to a bell above ground so if the dead person was just a freezing traveler and woke up they would move their hands (from that good old “I’m being buried alive!” panic I assumed) ringing the bell set next to their grave.”
“So that’s where…”
“Saved By The Bell came from? Yes, some say it is…”
Kara and I let out a matching “ooooohhhhhhhhh.”
“So question? When we turn on our lights back on… What would you rather have? An extra person here or one of you two missing?”
Que the theme song from Friday the 13th please, it’s time to go.
Time Warner cable has about 2000 channels. Some of them are High Definition copies of regular channels and others are just plain foreign or full of sports. Sunday nights at our apartment usually consist of wasabi peas and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s mixed with the occasional funny cigarette and the usual what the hell are we watching tonight. I’m more Family Guy on TBS to her Gangland on the History channel so you can see were finding a fair compromise can be an exorcise in commitment. The end result is usually one of us on our cell phones or the other pretending to watch while they steal an evening nap. This one Sunday we gave the fine art of channel surfing a shot. In between the crumbs on the couch and the newspaper spread all over the entire living room we laid in our blankets and one by one critiqued everything we saw. Bollywood? Bullshit. Sarah Palin’s Alaska? Sarah couldn’t pay me in Alaska. Porn? Pass. Cinemax? Cinnabuns.
Then we wind up at the Travel Channel during this delightful little show called Bizarre Foods. This could have been an episode of Jackass for all I’ve known the host is talking about eating a rotten fermented shark. I rewind, throw up a little in my mouth, and rewind again. Kara has this wild look in her eyes. Where do we get this again? Iceland!? We book a flight and are there about a month later.
“Yeah he’s a rapper”
Maybe I shouldn’t have worn my shades. Aviator sunglasses tend to make me feel a bit douchey anyway. Kara is making fun of me to some little Icelanders while I leave my tag on one of the columns in this small Nordic graffiti shop. I spot a tag by a rap producer from New Jersey and a South Pole flannel shirt on a rack. The Swedish store keeper tells me about her sister and her African husband with his dreads and all of the hip-hops. I buy a marker and spot an awkward pair of Adidas in a glass case. The place reminds me of some of the shops I’ve seen in San Diego and Philadelphia, a caricature of what street culture was in the 80’s without the spray paint locked up behind a cage or the crack epidemic. It’s like The Source magazine curated this hip hop heaven where no one stole and everyone asked permission to tag up, gangs were known as crews and shoot outs were dance offs. This lady probably still thinks break-dancing is the shit, an art form I tried to imitate growing up in the 80’s but by the 90’s I had shunned it because it was too soft and “played out”. I was as old as the KRS-1 playing in the speakers and as colorful as the ink on the walls. I was that authentic New York shit that this “Swedestafarian” worshiped and all I did was criticize it in 140 characters or less. Instead of being proud of seeing this lifestyle I knew and lived first hand having a platform in the arctic circle, millions of miles away from the Writers Bench on 149th Street in the Bronx, I was a little embarrassed. Is this what the world thinks about my life? Why is it we never felt Yo MTV Raps was as relevant as Video Music Box? MTV did its part in spreading the culture but why wasn’t it was real as Ralph McDaniel interviewing at the Tunnel Night Club or filming at Rutger Park in Harlem? Not many urban movies successfully capture what life was back then and I felt like this was another failed attempt at accuracy. I love that it was there, yes we made it, but really wished it wasn’t.
New York City: glorifying, confusing, then eating its creative young since 1624.
Speaking of food, it’s our last full day in Iceland and we still haven’t found our shark.
Kara slips into her Henry Holland stockings while I pull my khakis over my black thermal underwear. She puts her fox fur on while I wrap my Manchester United scarf over my tan Uniqlo trench. We both take shots of overpriced Jameson before we flask it while I load up my beat up Polaroid camera. Our exhausted Hostel Concierge points us in direction of our coveted old shark barf. It’s Friday in Iceland and tonight the bars are usually open until 5am with some of them serving till sunrise. PARTY. TIME. I finally get in contact with AJ, a childhood friend of my dude Paulie back in New York, and he agrees to meets us at the Icelandic bar also known as the Islenski Barrin. This is the place our concierge told us we would find our shark. Pooooiiifect. My stomach gurgles out a “fall back” which I ignore and we head out into the winter, Jameson and stomach in tow.
“So wait what’s all this?”
Our waiter is very patient with us. We are doing our best ugly American impressions while looking at the menu. Everything has an english translation next to it but we prefer the advice of this underwhelmed waiter as we are finicky in what to try first. Whale, reindeer, puffins, shark… SHARK. Our waiter informs us that we can order a platter and try it all. We flex our tourist dollars and order it all. Our entre is presented to us in a manner expected from a classy pub. All the wood moldings and old world feel looks like I’m springing for a fancy Wall Street steak dinner, but no dinner, we are eating a children’s book. 250 dollars and a dozen funny faces later we are left with a half eaten buffet and a culinary experience we cannot describe in words. Rotten shark meat, the reason for our entire trip, is now off our bucket list, and I’m trying to keep it out of the toilet.
THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD
Upon my return from the bathroom (I didn’t throw up) I peep AJ already at our partially devoured table. He’s nothing like we expected, in part because Paulie is more of an abrasive personality in contrast to AJ’s business like refinement. After our formal introductions we follow him into the night with the fresh sigh of relief a blind-daters would have after a family hook-up. I pull out our bottle of Jameson for a shot before we head out, he pulls out a tiny bottle of Brennivin, we are both wearing v-neck sweaters. This is going to be a great night.
I wish I could describe the night in all it’s vibrant and rich color. By the second bar I was as drunker than a goldfish swimming in vodka. We had started at the top of the main road, Laugavegur, and worked our way down from bar to nightclub to lounge. The coffee shops we had seen earlier during the day where now bustling with vibrant drunks in their Sundays best. The people reminded me of Wednesday nights at Marquee back in 2007 when the hipsters would party on the top floor while the sequined and button-down set brought bottles on the main floor below. Nordic sweaters and demin shirts mixed with European couture with fun overcoats and tights made to reveal as well as keep warm. Everyone was as nice as they were sexy and as brash as they were cocky. Icelandic blondes flirting with the blue-eyed German weekenders who would fly there to party in excess while the fanny pack and ski jacket set talked it up with whatever old-timer willing to share the cities rich history. If you didn’t finish your drink the bouncers gave you a to-go cup so you could take your drink to the next venue. And everyone was dancing. Dancing on the line outside, dancing in the streets, in the bathrooms, behind the bars, and all I kept thinking was this is what the Smurf village would look like at new years if they were european and not blue. And the beat…
“I want you to love me, like I’m a hot ride…”
I had heard this song once. I must have been leaving a bar in New York at like 3am when I heard it. The way the bass played and danced around that familiar house music thump. When I first heard the song I thought it was the perfect big room banger that could be played at Pacha or Cielo. My head starts to nod to the rhythm with no control of my own. The liquor in my system is not allowing me to stand still. Soon me and my girlfriend are doing whirlwind spins on the dance floor. The only thing missing is the light up dance floor from Saturday Night Fever. We finish our round of drinks between giggles and stumbling dance steps before leaving for the next bar. The minute we step inside the new venue we hear it again:
“Be thinkin’ of me, doin’ what you like”
OK, this isn’t weird at all. The same song is playing the minute we walk into the next bar? Whatever, by this time I’m offensively taking photos of the other interesting patrons. The marker I purchased earlier comes out and soon every available surface becomes our canvas. One of the bartenders tells me I’m not allowed to take photos. I respond by removing the flash and taking a picture of him. Everyone is fawning over Kara’s fur coat in an excuse to get to talk to her. I stare in fascination at all of the model type locals casually hanging out like this was the back room at Avenue. My flash goes off by accident and I decide to leave before the bartender orders me to.
“So boy forget about the world cuz it’s gon’ be me and you tonight /
I wanna make your beg for it, then imma make you swallow your pride…”
I have now heard the same song three times in a row within the first three minutes of entering the last three bars. AJ and I forget whose turn is it to buy the next round so we have what is the equivalent of a water balloon fight but with shots of Jack Daniels. In the middle of the festivities I noticed he is paying a bit more attention to his phone, something to do with the wedding he was supposed to be involved with earlier that day. I’m totally distracted by the beautiful women around me, every single one taking a quick peek or sending me a quick flirt with their eyes. I start humming the words to International Playboy by The Smiths while holding Kara’s hand as if it was connected to an ego life raft. AJ stops my love fest to tell me he has to leave, being that he lives with his fiancé I respect that, and we bid him a hearty farewell. Soon everything around us turns into a blur of lights and sound. This is what it feels like to be wasted without the assistance of other stuff. We totally forgot that we were even looking. Kara is now the only girl I see in front of me and by the way we are dancing she is the only person in the entire world. Soon we leave for some fresh air and head to another bar down the road. By then it is 3am and the European soccer fans have taken it to signing drunken team anthems in the street. A few of them fuck with me because of my Manchester scarf. I politely explain it matches my Mishka hat and shrug my shoulders like Kanye West when he interrupted that country singer. I plant a sloppy but passionate kiss on Kara in the middle of the cold brisk nordic air. That’s when I remember the name of the song:
“Want you to make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world
Like I’m the only one that you’ll ever love …”
And here I am In my fourth bar of the night listening to Rihanna’s Swedish House remix of “Only Girl in the World”, with the only girl in my world, within the first three minutes of entering. Again.
If the universe was trying to tell me something, too late, I knew this seven years ago. Three times four is seven. OK I just weirded myself out.