The Good Guest, Olive, 1929

olivehorse
Olive Murray was welcomed everywhere she went in Iceland. That is partly because of the generosity and kindness of the Icelanders but it was also because she was a good guest.

When she stays at the parsonage at Setberg with Séra Jósef Jónsson and his wife, Hólmfridur Halldórsdóttir, she doesn’t just observe but participates.

She says, “before going to bed, I strolled out to watch the pastor and his children, who with some of the farm hands were busy sorting great piles of sheep’s wool, which had been spread out to dry in the sun. This work was going on together with haymaking in all the valleys where there were farms. The wool is washed, dried and afterwards collected in piles, packed in big sacks and sent off to be sold to merchants who, in their turn, ship it to England, Spain and America, mainly to America. On my return from Iceland in August in a freight steamer round the north and west coasts, we put in at eight little ports for the purpose of collecting this wool, and arrived at Leith with 3600 loaded sacks on board!”

“I stayed out till nearly 10 p.m. at Setberg, enjoying the warm evening sunshine, helping to sort the soft, clean wool and taking some photographs and sketches.”

Later, at Miklibær she spends most of the afternoon helping with the hay. “Haymaking time is very important in Iceland, for the number of ponies and sheep which a farmer is able to keep during the winter depends largely upon his stock of hay which he uses for their fodder.”

Her willingness to help pays off for this kindness is repaid in kind. She does not want to continue her trip in a car for the previous experience of the roads was not good. However, she has not been able to find available horses at haymaking time, nor a guide.

“The pastor’s wife and her brother-in-law had ridden off to a farm some miles away to take coffee with some friends. On their return we all had supper together and then, while the sun s hone upon a golden evening, bathing the lovely valley in glory, I energetically did some more haymaking. To my joy, a farmer, who was helping with the others, offered to supply three ponies for the rest of my journey, which he said would take a couple of days. A young man whose name I think was Magnússon, a native of Akureyri, and who had been at the farm at Miklibær on a visit, offered to be my guide.‘

“My spirits rose in leaps and bounds, for it looked as if I should be able to ride into Akureyri after all, and if my luck held I ought to reach it on July 17th, a day sooner than the date on which I had roughly calculated”

“We sat in a circle among the sweet smelling hay while the price of the ponies and the wages of the guide were discussed. Magnússon wished to know if I would be afraid of fording a rather difficult and swift river, to which question the pastor´s brother replied:
“Oh, no, she is not afraid: The farmer from Bólatadahlid told me that she rides the ponies not at all like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander!”

The next day when they reach the river, they “then plunged into the swirling water. My pony was splendid: stones were whirling past his sturdy little legs, but he bravely battled on and I found the best plan was to keep my eyes fixed steadily in front on the tails of the others and not to look down at the foaming torrent of icy water which was splashing over my legs. Had I slipped in, I should probably have been swept away by the current into the deep part of the river where rescue would not have been easy. However, we all got safely across and another little adventure was over.”

They travel all day and don’t arrive at a farmhouse until nine o’clock. “Haymaking was still in busy progress, but the farmer left it and came to greet us, asking what we wanted. To our anxious inquiries as to whether we could stay the night, he replied:

“Já!”

“Have you eggs?”

“Nay.”

“Fresh fish?”

“Nay.”

“Porridge and milk””

“Já Já!”

“I was so faint and tired, Magnússon had to lift me from my pony.”

The farmer’s wife feeds them the porridge and milk. Olive finally sleeps. At eight o’clock the next morning, the farmer’s wife brings “coffee and thick bread and butter…and at 10:30 she had ready a substantial meal of sandwiches, salted fish and a delicious Icelandic pudding, a sort of custard eaten with sugar, cream and nutmeg.”

After breakfast, they are on their way and eventually, Olive sees a sign “20 kils. to Akureyri.”, her destination.

Shortly, she “rode up to the little Godafoss hotel and was shown to the luxury of a real bedroom once more, with a comfortable bed, a hanging cupboard and—joy of joys!—I learned there was a bathroom!”

She has made a difficult journey, one that few foreigners had ever attempted and which even Icelanders seldom made. Instead, travelers usually traveled by boat. She’d made her way from farm to farm, her phrase book and her growing notes about how to say words and phrases in Icelandic allowing her to communicate enough to get by. From time to time she has been fortunate to meet Icelanders who speak English.

She is always greeted with courtesy. People cannot always do as she wishes, there is hay to make, wool to sort, animals to take care of but if they can’t help, they find someone who can.

Relationships are never one sided. If Olive had been arrogant, difficult, demanding, critical, all those things that make travelers ugly and unwelcome, she would not have found Icelanders so helpful. She may have had kronur in her purse but, as she says time and again, her offer to pay for her lodging and meals, is turned down. Icelanders, in 1929, are often poor but they are proud. She took nothing of that pride away from anyone. Respect gathers respect. It is obvious that her willingness to put up with hardship, to make the best of things, to not be afraid, to participate, earned her the respect that was evident when the pastor’s son says she doesn’t ride like a foreigner, she rides like an Icelander.

Olive understands and appreciates that she has just had a great compliment.

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.