Finding Warmth in Iceland

From their usual popular destinations, Filipinos do come to live in Iceland, in the Arctic North. Most of them are seafarers, or simply, adventurous.

Me, I was just an incidental tourist of a kind, a world sampler, and Iceland was another item on my “curious” list. I did not deliberately travel to Iceland were it not for constant and attractive tourism sales pitches. It was also an alternative bridge to European adventures. We booked a three-day trip to see something new and to hop on to a European port for a later cruise adventure.

We started with our leisure trip (coming from an overnight flight on Icelandair) on a Grayline bus from Keflavik airport. In the early morning haze, the bus took us through what seemed to be a lonely, barren flatland with low mountains in the background and a sprinkling of purple lupine flowers in the foreground.

This “treeless” country, as described by many articles, has only one-third of its total land area covered with vegetation due to unchecked sheep grazing and logging for fuel and building materials over the years.   

Driving through Iceland countryside (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

Driving through Iceland countryside (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

It seemed to take forever for the airport ride. We were tired, and the previous night was too short and we wanted to get to where we were going. It was 31-and-a-half miles just to get into town, which took about 45 minutes. The roads seemed straight with not much traffic; the heavy clouds were at ground level and the fields were just open. We finally got to town, to the bus depot, after which we were transferred to a minivan that was ideal for narrow streets. There we were, at Central Plaza hotel, very early for our body clocks after our normal night was eaten up by a white morning. We were offered an early check-in for a reasonable fee, which included breakfast. Hungry for food and rest, we agreed. It was a Scandinavian type breakfast, slightly more than continental, with some hot food like scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon and various breads and butter and cut fruit all grown in Iceland. A variety of food crops, including vegetables and fruit, are grown in greenhouses heated with geothermal energy.

We took advantage of the long day and the early afternoon to do the Golden Circle tour. We gazed at the largest waterfall in Europe (Gullfoss) and the mini-geysers (including Geysir, the term that gave rise to the English word) and other natural wonders. The country arose from the Mid-Atlantic, forming a ridge, separating the North American and Eurasian plates, which created a constant geological tension. New islands are born after a few volcanic eruptions. We were too tired to fully appreciate the new information, but it was good use of our time as we were not staying too long. The next few days were long as the sun hardly dipped below the horizon and promptly rose again.

Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

As opposed to vacation packages (Iceland tours that include airfare) it seemed expensive to go on one’s own, as an ordinary hotel room was about $200 a night and a simple meal was close to $50 for the two of us. Of course, it was June and peak season.

We took tours in place, and we were certainly amazed at the natural environment and how the country preserves it. Guides were quick to point out that Iceland was a self-sustaining country that produced its own energy from its own geothermal and hydroelectric resources. Icelanders are proud of their pure and healthful water, and there were many thermal pools to luxuriate in, including the famous Blue Lagoon. Iceland almost exclusively runs on renewable energy sources.

One afternoon, we soaked ourselves in one of those natural pools, but had to rent swim suits as we foolishly neglected to pack them. Going through undressing rooms, we had to get into communal showers naked as Eve, separated by gender but not age, before getting into swimsuits and using the pools. It may have been partly psychological or real, but I felt better as I emerged from the healing waters of Reykjavik. The Blue Lagoon was our first choice, but having so little time, we could not make a convenient reservation considering both transport and time schedules; and of course the magic Blue was more expensive than the public pool. With the public pool, as seniors, we were granted a concession rate, which means free. Unbeatable deal.

Before Long, Signs of Filipinos

We took a hop-on, hop-off bus to see major city sights. We saw a sign along the way, “Filipino Restaurant,” (in Iceland?) and I made a mental note that we should go there the next day. My only landmark was that it was near stop No. 18 (?), which was the Hilton hotel. We walked up the side road, turned left and there it was--Filipino restaurant, with a sub-sign below indicating Filipino-Indonesian food availability.

John Ace, Fikre, Maricel and Michael Reeves (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

John Ace, Fikre, Maricel and Michael Reeves (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

The Filipino-Indonesian Restaurant (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

The Filipino-Indonesian Restaurant (Photo by Gia R. Mendoza)

I met the owners and learned that they constituted a Filipino-Indonesian partnership. The lady is Maricel Valle, who changed her name to Kristin (or Christine upon local advice) to harmonize with Icelandic traditional names. She says, however, that nowadays one can keep one’s own name. She later met Fikre, an Indonesian, and they got married and had a son, Ricky Alexander, or following Icelandic tradition is now Fikresson (son of Fikre). Maricel herself is called Juliosdottir (daughter of her father Julio). It is normal to be called by first names, and subsequently family names have the parents’ names, with “son” and daughter (dottir) as suffix. They are now citizens of Iceland after more than 20 years in the country and speak Icelandic. Fikresson is fluent in four languages--Icelandic, English, Tagalog and Indonesian.

The restaurant is a year old, and seems to be viable with fellow Filipinos, tourists and some Indonesians as regular customers. Both Fikre and Maricel do the cooking, with Fikre working part-time in a bakery, occasionally helped by Ricky. Fikre is proud of his Indonesian menu offerings including his delicious hamburger, and Maricel of her laxasupa (fish soup) and pancit. Sometimes another lady (Annalynn) and her young son (John Ace) help out.

There are approximately 2,000 Filipinos in Iceland, the largest Asian group in the country of about 340,000 inhabitants. Many Filipinos work in the fishing and geothermal industries. The Philippine ambassador to Norway has jurisdiction in Iceland.

In spite of the predominantly cold weather and dark nights, they are happy in Iceland. Safety is an important consideration and health care is accessible to everyone. Ricky has grown and lived in Iceland most of his life and found it difficult to adapt to the heat and Philippine air when he visited there once.

Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world (third lowest, next to Singapore and Lichtenstein). Crimes, when they occur, apparently do not involve firearms even if gun ownership is high among Icelanders. I noted that the hotel in town where we were booked had no room safe, although the reception office had one if requested. Egalitarianism in terms of income and treatment of the sexes is one of the best in the world. There are virtually no class distinctions. Health care is universal and any pregnancy is taken care of by the state. All citizens benefit from free schooling up to university level. With the little time we were there it seemed like a fairy tale country with no tension among people. Corruption is almost non-existent, which makes the recent resignation of the Iceland PM and his connection to the Panama papers mind-blowing in this fairy tale state.

The openness of the Icelandic spirit might have rubbed off on the Filipino-Indonesian couple, or they could have been naturally kind. After an hour of conversation, they offered to lodge us next time we were in Iceland. They also offered to drop us off at our next destination in Reykjavik, like the shopping center, and/or our hotel. They offered us their extra car to drive around if we wanted to. This attitude blew me away. How could people be this trusting and generous, so different from our experience in big, crowded cities?

Saying Goodbye

We spent the last afternoon, walking through the tourist traps, contributing to the Icelandic economy by patronizing food shops and buying herbal cream products. We tried to see the adorable puffins, but the wind was too strong for them to pose for visitors.

It was too soon, or too late to see the Northern Lights, another enchanting attraction in Iceland. The lights also grace the skies elsewhere, but here there are elves, trolls, mythic creatures and folk tale magic. Yes, we might return. In the album of one’s mind, there would always be an empty page or two for more Icelandic memories.

Gia R. Mendoza worked as an international civil servant for many years, and is now retired in Washington State. She enjoys writing and painting.

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