Iceland Trip 2021: Fire, Ice and Germo-Therapy

This summer the Sarsam clan traveled to Iceland. Joining my wife Judy and I on this expedition were family members and stalwart traveling companions Karissa, Nikita, Victoria, Kamila, Andrew and Jorge.

Our choice to head to the Land of Fire and Ice was made using a highly sophisticated decision process:

  • It was the only First World country open when I was planning our vacation earlier that spring.
  • Yup, that was pretty much the only reason.

We also found reasonable airfare, so reasonable that I decided to spring for “Saga” class on Icelandic Air.  Saga class is like premium economy with free drinks which seemed like a waste for the littles, so I offered Nik and Vic $300 to sit in economy. Karissa told Nikita that he had to take the money in Icelandic currency and then helped him do the math to find that 300 krona is $2.40. Nikita had a meltdown that required an unnecessary amount of my time at the airport to fix.

Upon arrival, we were immediately confronted with the wondrously lyrical Icelandic language. Our first driver, Engalbjartur, began giving us a few simple, useful words for our trip:

  • Gluggavedur – Crappy Weather
  • Landbúnaðarframleiðsla – Agriculture
  • Fjárfestingarfyrirtæki – Bank
  • Byggingarverkfræðingur – Civil Engineer
  • Oreokexrjómaís – Oreo McFlurry
  • Stelpuklósett – Girls Toilet
  • Vinsamlegast taktu börnin mín – Please Take My Children

We could not pronounce any of these words, even the ones with fewer than nine syllables. The kids would briefly make sounds like the Swedish Chef from the Muppets. Then they just used English.

The first day was easy. Our guide, Thor (huge break on the name), took us to a bunch of local restaurants. Epicurean delights included fiskafgangurs (took us a whole day to figure out “fisk” meant “fish”) and the all-important pilsur (lamb hot dog). The number of lammy-dodger-dog knockoffs we consumed was historic.

Day two began the hiking phase of our adventure, which lasted until we got through customs on our return through Chicago. The general theme of our hikes centered around waterfalls. The waterfalls were so beautiful I thought they would never get old, until we viewed around 2,000 of them. On this first hike we also learned the different meaning of “moderate hike” in various cultures:

  • USA moderate hike: 2.5-mile round trip, 300-foot elevation change, paved/smooth pathway, lots of picture breaks.
  • Sarsam children moderate hike: 200-yard round trip, flat sidewalk, two stops for ice cream.
  • Icelandic moderate hike: 11-mile round trip with 3,000-foot elevation change, 60-degree incline climbing over boulders and at least two river crossings (not to exceed waist-high water).

Fortunately, the kids took the surprisingly difficult mountain hike in stride with limited complaining. That is, unless you consider four hours of screaming disorder to be limited complaining. Victoria had the first pee crisis (about 200 yards into the hike), and Karissa established a family record for whining about how much longer we were going to hike. When I revealed — just before the second river crossing — that I had the presence of mind to bring a small pack of Oreos, I thought Andrew and Nikita were going to gnaw my arm off to get one. Despite the onslaught of complaining/bad manners that would have impaired a lesser family, the waterfalls were spectacular and worth the moderate hike.

The last event for the day was a quick kayak trip. For reasons that can be described only as parental abdication, we allowed Andrew and Nikita to share a double kayak. They loaded up first, then Karissa and Victoria and then the rest of us in singles. As Judy was getting in her kayak, she asked our guide, “Do these things ever tip over?” The guide began his answer, “No, as long as I have been …,” at which point we heard a huge SPLASH and the sound of two boys screaming at each other next to a capsized kayak. It was briefly terrifying and then just plain hilarious.

Our second moderate hike took us over a couple miles of lava field to the cone of a dormant volcano. We had the thrill of lowering 500 feet into the caldera on a motorized lift. Upon ascending we had a provided lunch … lamb soup. This was a great option except for the handful of kids who don’t like lamb or soup. But the lack of nutrition was scarcely mentioned on the moderate hike back to the bus.

The next day I canceled our moderate hike. We instead went to an Icelandic museum, which was terrific. I instructed the kids that they had to learn as many facts as possible to earn their dinner. At one exhibit on energy usage, Victoria asked, “Where does the energy come from?” I told her that it comes from super-heated water deep in the earth known as “geothermal energy.” Two minutes later I heard Victoria tell Kamila, “I have my first fact! Energy in Iceland comes from germo-therapy!” Ok, it had been 120 seconds … but she was in the ballpark.

One of the really cool exhibits at the museum was an ice cave which consisted of a 250-foot walk through a simulated cave at around -15 degrees C. We didn’t have coats with us, but how bad can a 250-foot walk in the cold be? Oh … my … heavens. When the attendant closed the door behind us, the Sarsam kids sprung into full-on survivor mode. What I heard for the roughly 4-minute duration of this exhibit included:

  • Daddy, it’s super cold!
  • It’s like minus 100 degrees in here!
  • Where’s the exit! Oh my God, there’s no exit!
  • Why did you cancel our moderate hike today just to bring us here to kill us?!
  • I have to pee really bad!
  • This cave never ends! I feel my organs shutting down!

So embarrassing. The kids from Iceland in the cave with us are probably scarred for life.

The next stop was the world-famous Blue Lagoon spa. We had five hours to enjoy germo-therapeutic pools including salt scrubs, algae rubs, massage and a light lunch. All of us had appointments for water massage, but Nikita decided to opt out of his. We started with our lunch of small plates and drinks. Nik decided to hang back while the rest of us went to massage. He had the ice cream and pancake plate, then asked if he could have another. I said sure. It was not evident to me at the time that he understood that to be a blank check for pancakes and ice cream for the afternoon. After a really lovely day at the spa, I checked out and settled our bill for lunch, suddenly gripped with a wave of nausea thinking about 10 orders of pancakes and ice cream swimming around in that tummy.

The next three nights we stayed in a house in the countryside. Our first adventure from there was a trip to see a really terrific waterfall followed by lunch at a tomato farm. There was more than a little apprehension about the hardiness of a tomato-soup-lunch after a morning of vigorously watching water tumble over a rock ledge. But the soup and 4,000 calories of various breads that came with it were quite satisfying. And the greenhouse, with its 6,000 dutiful Icelandic bumble bees, was fascinating. Landbúnaðarframleiðsla at its finest!

The afternoon was reserved for a river-buggy romp. All the licensed drivers got in a buggy and terrified the non-licensed drivers. In yet another inexplicable turn of events, Karissa (who just got her license this month) drove with Judy in the passenger seat. We sped off following a guide in these vehicles that could best be described as four-wheeled death traps. Up berms, in the river, through the mud … great fun. At the first stop, Judy was sobbing in a way I had not seen since we found out Karissa and Jorge were getting a dog. Apparently Karissa missed the road at the top of a hill and went barreling down a steep embankment, bound for certain death in a raging river. She managed to stay upright after a massive oversteer and got back to the road atop the hill. Awesome! Later, I got my buggy stuck in the river and joked with Victoria that, as the co-pilot, it was her job to make sure we did not get stuck. She couldn’t tell I was joking and began wailing almost as much as Judy the day we found out Karissa’s dog was coming to stay with us in Michigan. Jorge pulled us out, and despite the tears it was a totally awesome day.

The last full day we did a moderate hike atop a large glacier. Hiking on a glacier is not as warm and comfortable as it sounds, and the Gluggavedur that day did not help. We all got clamp-on spikes for our boots and ice pikes. The guide gave us very specific instructions on how to use the picks so that no one got hurt. It was quite effective, as one could hear the Sarsams from Solheimajoull, a mere two glaciers away: “Ouch! … watch what you’re doing! … get away! … stop swinging that thing! … ow! … aaahhhg! … watch out! … hit me again, and I’ll crush your skull! … yeow!!!”

On the last morning, we went horseback riding, partly to learn about Icelandic horses and partly to make me feel all gangsta lying to customs about not coming in contact with livestock on our trip.

In the spirit of the Olympics taking place this same week, the Sarsam clan established family records for the use of words more than six syllables long and for excursions involving helmets (four, breaking last year’s record of three).

Before we left the country villa, as Judy was getting out of the shower, I asked her to leave it running so I could jump in. She asked if that would drain the hot water for other people, to which I replied, “That won’t be a problem, that tank is 2000 feet below us.”

Germo-therapy in action. Awesome trip.