Búdir, the most beautiful place in Iceland: 1929

“I had intended to leave Stapi for Búdir where there was, I learned , a good farm, not later than 4 or 5 p.m.; but, although a message arrived from Búdir to say that horses and a guide would call for me by the hour, it was nearly 9 p.m. before they finally turned up.”

”It was nearly ten o’clock by the time we got started, for the guide Jónsson, a handsome youth with curly red hair and bright blue eyes, had to have a meal and the ponies a rest before we could get away.”

“At midnight…stopping after a while to rest them (the horses) at a tiny farm out of which ran a couple of men. After looking at me with great interest and curiosity, and inquiring of Jónsson who I was, one of them disappeared, returning in a few minutes with a welcome glass of fresh milk which he offered me, refusing to take any payment. When at last we rode away, the men stood outside their door watching us and waving their hands, till we were out of sight.“

“About one o’clock my guide pointed out the Búdir promontory far ahead along the coastline, and soon after we passed one or two solitary riders, farmers I imagine. They stopped in each case to shake hands with us both, and to exchange snuff with Jónsson from out of the quaint bone horns which they all carried.“

“In the more remote parts of Iceland one seldom sees a man smoking; tobacco is too expensive, and the people—both men and women alike—take snuff instead, throwing their heads back and sniffing large quantities up their nostrils.

“I gathered that the riders all inquired of Jónsson, with great curiosity and a certain amount of chaff, who I was! In other words no doubt using the Icelandic equivalent for: ”Who is your lady friend?” His answer seemed to satisfy and surprise them and, after warmly shaking hands again, they would ride on, crying out: “Verid thér saelar!” “Be ye happy!” the customary greeting invariably exchanged between passing travellers. When a stranger accosts another in Iceland, it is considered polite to fire out a battery of questions: “What is your name?” “Whither are you bound?” “Whose son are you?”

“It was nearly 2 a.m. when, very weary and sleepy, I reached Búdir farm. It was a two-storied wooden house, and I was shown upstairs to a bare boarded room with the welcome sight of a real bed in one corner. A good sized table in the centre of the room, a locked cupboard and one or two chairs completed the furniture. A smiling, good-natured woman bustled about putting clean sheets over the usual eiderdown bedding, and then hurried off to prepare eggs and bread and butter as if it was the most usual thing in the world for a stranger to turn up at two in the morning!’

“I spent the afternoon sketching and exploring the beauties of Búdir and its estuary. It was certainly the most beautiful place I had yet seen in Iceland. The outline of mountains round the coast was magnificent, while behind, away to the west, rose up the mighty snow-capped peaks of Snæfells-Jökull. Among the sheltered hollows in the dunes were grassy patches where I counted a variety of wild flowers, among them quantities of forget-me-nots and wild pansies of a lovely violet shade, patches of golden saxifrage and the delicate sea pink. Búdir is, indeed, famous for its flowers, of which there are said to be 150 different kinds, more than in any part of Iceland.”

Olive stays at Búdir for three days. She sketches but with difficulty because the weather has turned bitterly cold with a wind from the north and frequent cloud bursts.

So, imagine 1929, an English woman, an artist, rural Iceland, still so few tourists that when one turns up, especially a woman, she is a great curiosity. We´re inclined to think of women in earlier times as delicate but nothing could be further from the truth. They rode horses, they managed house holds without any conveniences, no automatic washing machines, dishwashers, electric stoves. They had children with the help of a mid-wife, if they were fortunate. If not, they managed on their own. If they were well to do, they had servants and had to hire, manage, fire them.

There is nothing shy about Olive. She exudes self-confidence. She goes to Iceland with nothing but a phrase book and the absolute certainty that she can handle whatever turns up. She finds accommodation; she hires guides, rents horses, eats whatever is put in front of her, rides through the night over trackless wilderness.

She has read about Iceland and Icelanders and what she has read has given her complete confidence in the honesty and decency of the Icelandic people. She travels from place to place with Icelandic guides and trusts them completely. Her trust is well placed. She is treated with courtesy and kindness. Her book, beneath the surface events, is a testimony to the Icelandic people. It shows them as generous and considerate, as honest and trustworthy.

Who could read Olive’s account of her Iceland travels and not think well of Iceland and Icelanders?

Kárastadir: 1929

http://www.reykjavik.com/reykjavik-roaring-20s/

“On June 26th, 1930, Iceland will celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of her Parliament at Thingvellir. Thousands will flock to the plan for the celebrations, and among the visitors will be many Icelandic settlers from Canada.”

“At the foot of the mountains overlooking the lake, and about half an hour’s walk from Thingvellir, is a farmhouse where it is possible to stay very comfortably, and I determined to spend about ten days here for sketching and exploring the beauties of the place.”

And determined, Olive certainly is. Remember, she is traveling alone, a woman in 1929, knows no Icelandic and has just a book of Icelandic phrases to use to tell people who she is and what she needs. She gets to the farm, not by horse, for things have changed, but in a truck.

“The distance from Reykjavik is only about thirty miles, and as there is now quite a good road it is possible to motor. I got a seat in a timber lorry that was going in that direction. My suitcases and hold-all were wedged in between various packing-cases, and I sat in front between the driver and an elderly countrywoman who was travelling in my direction. We first had to collect goods in various parts of the town; this took some time and it was nearly 7 p.m. before we got away.

“For some distance we climbed the rough desolate, lava-strewn country bare of all vegetation, with a background of mountains streaked with snow. At one point we came upon a stout and cheerful peasant woman seated on a rock by the wayside smoking a cigarette, and with a bundle beside her. She was waiting for the chance of being picked up by a passing car and given a lift; for these lorries, of which there are quite a number in the vicinity of Reykjavik and in other places where there happen to be possible roads, are eagerly sought after by the country folk, who frequently make use of them as we should use a motor-bus.”
“Somehow or other the driver managed to squeeze the stout new-comer between himself and me. We were now four on the front seat, and how he managed to find space to drive with the newcomer’s arm around his waist—for there was no other room for it—I can’t imagine! In addition, several youths had perched themselves on the packing-case behind. We continued on our bumpy way, for the road, although superior to many Icelandic roads, was plentifully supplied with big pot holes. Finally, some miles farther on, the stout lady and the youths left us, evidently for some farm near. They shook hands several times with everyone all round, and I was careful to remove my glove first in the approved fashion, for an Icelander always does this. I had already come to the conclusion that a good motto for those visiting Iceland is: “When in doubt shake hands.” It is always necessary, for instance, to shake hands with your hostess after a meal, during which she often waits upon you herself.”

“About 9 p.m. we came in sight of Kárastadir, the farm where I was to stay. It was away over moorland some distance from the road and built under the shelter of high hills that towered up behind and were streaked with newly fallen snow.

“The lorry driver dumped my luggage by the roadside and, after vigorously sounding his horn to attract the attention fo the farmer, he shook me warmly by the hand and continued on his way. I could see some figures running about by the farmhouse and, after waving to them, I left my suit-cases where they were and started to walk across the fields over the rough cart track that led to the farm. Soon I saw a man and two children hastening to meet me. To my relief, the farmer, for it was he, spoke a word or two of English and, after giving me a courteous welcome,he went off to fetch my belongings while I made myself acquainted with the rest of the household. There was the farmer´s wife, a tall, fine-looking woman, very shy and silent; an old granny; and another woman, who helped with the cooking. There were also at least eight children, the youngest about eighteen months. After they had all, one by one, shaken hands with me, I was shown to a tiny bedroom with a clean boarded floor, a table with a basin and jug, and the bed with its usual mountainous eiderdown covering.”

And, so, there you have it, Olive is off on another adventure.

She has heard about how beautiful Thingveller is, wants to see it, sketch it, visit the famous booths described in the sagas. She hasn’t had to ride a horse from Reykjavik to Thingvella. Instead, she’s got a ride in a lorry. The local people haven’t had to ride horses over moorland but are able to get rides on passing vehicles. There is a road and, although it is generously supplied with potholes, it is still a road. The isolation has begun to be conquered. Farm workers aren’t trapped for years on end on a farm. They can get to the big city (although Reykjavik isn’t very big, yet) and be in touch with city life. The stranglehold of isolation and poverty and the power of the large landowning farmers is gradually giving way. Reykjavik may not be Paris but it provides a look at a world where there are jobs, where you might have an option to be something other than an indentured servant.

There is the chance, both for the farm family who provides Olive with lodging and meals, and for the guides she will hire, a chance to make some silver, currency instead of butter or wool.

Silver means that money can be saved, foreign goods bought, passage bought, the luxuries that were available only to the wealthy purchased. Get a copy of Björn G. Björnsson´s book, “Large Turf Houses” (www.salka.is), and look at the interior pictures of Bustarafell or Glaumbær. The interior shots at Laufás make clear the kind of things my ancestors didn´t have. The living room picture with the table and plush chairs, the ornate lamp, even the use of so much wood on floors and walls. (If you are not going to Iceland, then check with Tergesen‘s bookstore in Gimli, Manitoba to see if they carry Björnsson´s new books.)

If Ketill and his father, Valgardur Jonsson, had this kind of house, they´d have stayed in Iceland instead of emigrating to Canada in 1878. However, 51 years have passed. Jonsson has been long dead. Ketill is 69. By 1929, much has changed in Iceland. One of those changes is the opportunity to get jobs off the farms, to escape from some of the draconian laws that controlled anyone who didn´t own a farm. However, all those who owned farms weren´t rich, money was hard to come by and tourism, although more possible because of steam ships, roads and motor vehicles, is still a trickle and the farmer where Olive stays will have been glad to add her silver coins to his purse.

Ebenezer Henderson’s Iceland

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Ebenezer Henderson was the first British traveler to stay over a winter in Iceland. Other travelers had come but they stayed only during the summer. To stay longer was to risk being trapped by the weather. Raging storms regularly sank sailboats. There are many reports of foreign fishing vessels being sunk with no survivors. The evidence of such shipwrecks came in bits and pieces washing onto shore.

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There were no Inns in Iceland, no hotels as in mainland Europe. There were no roads. The weather that modern day tourists in Iceland talk about, horizontal rain, sudden bitter cold winds off the sea, having to take a set of warm underwear even though it is summer, all existed and, to make matters worse, today’s modern insulated, weather proof clothes didn’t exist.

Today, there are cafes and restaurants of many kinds, the tourist can buy a hot dog on the street or a fancy European style meal at the Pearl. In Henderson’s day, you brought your food with you plus all your equipment: cooking utensils, tents, clothes, gifts for farmers where you might stay.

Henderson endured an Icelandic winter because he was driven by his passion for spreading the Bible in a country where there were few Bibles. He was a messenger from both the English and Foreign Bible Society and God. Unlike the Mormon bishop forty years later in Laxness’s novel, Paradise Regained, Henderson was welcome wherever he went. That has to be qualified, of course, by the fact that he was, in spite of being a representative of his church and of God, a snob. He was not a street minister responsible for the welfare of the poor. He was welcome in the homes of Iceland’s upper class. In his daily life, he didn’t spend his time visiting the poverty stricken cottages of tenant farmers or labourers in whatever country in which he happened to be as he distributed bibles.

In Iceland, the ministers, whether pagan or Christian, served their political masters. It was no different in places like England. As Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, makes fun of Collins, the minister who is Elizabeth’s distant cousin, but who will inherit her family’s land through entailment, she gives us a clear picture of how he kowtows to his patron, Lady Catherine. It is Lady Catherine’s right to bestow a living upon the local minister. Collins knows that it is more important to please her than to please God. What the local dignitary can give, she can also take away.

Henderson pays no attention to the misery around him when he is in Iceland. He only wants to associate with those he feels are his social equals. He wants to discuss religious philosophy not the misery in the huts of the fishermen.

He comes with a purpose and a narrow view but, like travelers before and after him, Iceland captures his imagination. In the introduction to his book,

Iceland, Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815, he says “It is impossible for a stranger to take a single step in Iceland, without having some uncommon object of this description presented to his view; and I, in taking down notes of his progress, his principal difficulty lies in the selection of subjects where such a multiplicity claim his attention. It not infrequently happens that he is denied the pleasure of seeing a human being for several days together, when proceeding from one part of the island to another. In crossing the deserts of the interior, he may travel two hundred miles without perceiving the smallest symptom of animated being of any description whatever; and, even in traversing the inhabited parts, he still finds himself more surrounded by nature than by human society, owing to the distance from one farm-house to another.”

Today, the population has grown from 40,000 to over 300,000. Where there were horse tracks through the wilderness, there are now paved highways and tunnels. Iceland is the most wired country in the world. Airplanes and ships bring more visitors than there are Icelanders. The isolation Henderson describes has largely disappeared. Iceland is the Connected Country.

Iceland, over the last two hundred years, has drawn explorers and scientists, then wealthy tourists and, finally, the burgeoning of ordinary tourists. Henderson was not an ordinary tourist but, still, he left silver behind. There was a bit of money in some people’s pockets after his visit. Today, there is a lot of money left behind. Iceland has few natural resources outside of hydro electricity, other than its striking natural beauty. The uniqueness of the landscape brings people. They come for the Icelandic experience.

The danger is that in trying to attract those dollars and yen and marks and pounds people will create that which is not Icelandic, that which is something people can find anywhere. Tivoli is a historic part of Copenhagen. Coney Island is an integral part of New York. Disney Land is as brash as America.

The challenge for Iceland as it works to repair its economy and finds sources of wealth that will allow it to purchase all those things it does not produce at home (this is a struggle that has existed from the time of Settlement) is to retain its Icelandic character. People came and come for the sagas, for the Viking golden age, for the landscape, for the history, and , nowadays, for the artistic and intellectual events that are regularly held, not to participate in experiences they can better have elsewhere. I don’t want to sound like those Icelandic bishops that got a law passed that said, essentially, that Icelanders shouldn’t be allowed to have any fun but Carnival is best held in sunny climes.

In all the places I have traveled, what has intrigued and interested, fascinated me was the difference between my life and the life of the local people. If there hadn’t been this difference, I might as well have stayed home. Like Henderson, Waller, Burton and uncountable numbers of others, I love those things that make Iceland uniquely Icelandic. The challenge for Icelanders will be to bring tourist money to Iceland to help heal the wounds of the kreppa while retaining their historic, cultural and artistic heritage in this new, connected world.

Icelandic tourism

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

Almannagja, 1862, sketch by A. J. Symington

So, you are going to Iceland this summer. Dropping from the sky to Keflavik, taking a bus ride to Reykjavik, staying at a hotel with fine food and comfortable beds. A bus will take you on the Golden Circle. It will be air conditioned. You ride will be warm and dry.
However, when A. J. Symington went to the Geysers in 1862, it wasn’t so simple or so comfortable.

He lands from the steamer between 7 and 8 o’clock. He finds his “baggage and riding horses with the relays, twenty-four in all, assembled at the hotel court; Zöga, the guide, with his brother and a boy who were also to accompany us, busy adjusting saddles, stirrup straps, &c. For four days we shall be thrown entirely upon our own resources, so that provisions, tent, plaids and everything we are likely to need during a wilderness journey, must be taken with us. Our traps had been sent on shore late on the previous evening. The mode of loading the sumpter ponies is peculiar; a square piece of dried sod is placed on the horses back, then a wooden saddle with several projecting pins is girded on with rough woolen ropes; to either side of the saddle, is hooked on, a strong oblong wooden box generally painted red; while on the pins are hung bags, bundles, and all sorts of gipsy looking gear. These need frequent re-adjustment from time to time; as the ponies trot along, one side will weigh up the other, or the animals get jammed together and knock their loads out of equilibrium, the saddles then perhaps turn round and articles fall rattling to the ground. The strong little boxes are constructed and other arrangements made with a view to such contingencies, and however primitive, rude or outlandish they may at first seem to the stranger, he will soon come to see the why and the wherefore, and confess their singular adaptation to the strange and unique exigences of Icelandic travel.
The baggage train at length moved off, accompanied by the relief ponies, which were tied together in a row, the head of the one to the tail of the other before it.“

“The road terminated when we reached the outskirts of the town and the track lay over a wild black stony waste with little or no vegetation;‘ everything seemed scorched. The relay ponies were now loosed from each other, and perfectly free, driven before us.“

“They were apt to scatter in quest of herbage, but Zöga, when h is call was not enough or the dogs negligent, quickly out-flanked the stragglers, upon which, they, possessed by a salutary fear of his whip, speedily rejoined t heir fellows.”

1862. Ten years before the exodus to Amerika really begins. Iceland is still without roads, without wheeled vehicles, travel is slow and arduous. There is one bridge in the country. Rivers must be forded and often these are filled with glacial debris that can knock a horse off its feet, knock a rider into the current. Ferries are little more than row boats. A Reykjavik guide will have to enlist the aid of local people to keep his charges on their path and over a river.

Symington is part of the transition that is happening with travelers coming to Iceland. Sailing ships are giving way to steam ships. The prohibitive costs of having to rent or buy a yacht, hire a crew, are being replaced by advertised fares.

Iceland is still exotic, off the beaten path, requires the ability to ride a horse for days on end, sleep in churches and tents, cook over an open fire. Although the scientists, the explorers are being replaced by the curious, the flood of tourists has not yet begun. However, the stream has started and will, as the years go by, increase until Iceland is overrun by tourists. Nine hundred thousand tourists are expected to visit Iceland in 2015. This, in a country of just over three hundred thousand people.

Tourism was once considered pollutionless economics but nothing could be further from the truth. Nine hundred thousand people walk on the soil, use toilets, create waste from fuel used for cooking to food remnants, from exhaust from vehicles, from everything they do during their stay. Tourism is the classical example of privatizing profits and socializing costs. Those people who benefit from tourists, tour operators, airlines, restaurants, gift shops, and others make the profits but everyone pays to deal with tourist pollution.

The Blue Lagoon now requires a booking be made. Here, on the West Coast of Canada what, at one time seemed impossible, The West Coast Trail, one of the great hikes through wilderness, now requires a booking be made. The very people who come to admire and experience the uniqueness of Iceland and the West Coast of Canada threaten to destroy both.

The steam ship, then the commercial airplane, cheap travel, have made it possible for all of us to be world travelers. However, our travel changes, often dramatically, the cultures we travel to. The Iceland Symington visited had to change, had to pull itself out of the Medieval Age, had to become more involved with the larger world. Yet, reading his book, Faroe and Iceland, it is hard not to be nostalgic for the world he experienced and, ironically, wish it could be shared and, once again, gives its uniqueness to this traveler but not all those others.

Change is inevitable. Perhaps, though, it is by admitting that tourism cannot be limitless without destroying that which the tourists admire, that we can preserve our historic, geologic and cultural treasures.