Outfoxed

How do I put into words the sadness I feel as I fly away from Iceland? To say my heart is changed forever would be an understatement; I think it would have been impossible not to fall in love with the Westfjords.

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To begin, the blueberry festival was a mixture of terrifying (the biggest bon fire I’ve ever seen, kids flipping in a bouncy Viking ship thrown off course), hilarious (Svarar Nutur, who is Icelandic Jack Black, sharing laughs over Cards Against Humanity with new friends), exhausting (about 200 kids that wanted their faces painted), and lovely (pies, music on a mountain, dancing all night long). Each twist and turn was unexpected and welcomed in stride. And I look forward to going back one day soon.

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When you take a vacation from your job to do another job, does it really count as a vacation? I think it just makes your “day off” a thousand times more savored. That was Tuesday for me. After 8 days straight of working, including about 72 hours of blueberries, I was ready for an adventure, or whatever came my way. Beginning with a dinner in Isafjordur at Tjoruhusid, eating the most delicious meal I’ve ever had, and ending with a lesson on manual driving (my first time), the entirety of Tuesday was glorious. Tjoruhusid was filled with guests from the Fox Centre, many of whom remembered me and Gray and greeted us warmly. Walking up to get my food (unlimited portions!) I could hear chatter all around about what they’d learned from us. It felt good to know we were making a small difference in the lives of others. I met Freddy’s sister at the farm in Heydelur: Kula, a beautiful and friendly blue morph. I went back to Reykjanes for the ginormous hot pot and did “bommaslag” with my new Belgian friends. This word means “granny-style” I am told, and describes a sort of lazy fishy swim. So, now I have to learn Dutch.

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Then on Wednesday, back to the Centre, and of course, what will become of dear Freddy Mercury, the fox? Well this part is still unknown, but he is getting quite restless with his current predicament. Trying to escape every time we feed him, he successfully had a run around the yard once on Thursday.

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On the plus side, the plans to expand his area are becoming more real. I made a video to present to the Centre’s board to describe what crowdfunding could do to help raise money for the materials and labor. And everyone I tell about the plan is excited to make Freddy the poster-fox for this project. I think it would be easy to get the money together.

As for the actual plans for the pen, this may require more thought and planning. The current idea is to mimic the enclosure from the Reykjavik zoo, which was designed originally by Pall Hersteinsson, one of the Centre’s founders. But, I had the opportunity to go to the zoo, and I don’t necessarily agree with this idea. The enclosure there is designed to hold minks and foxes and has an electric fence all around it.

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It just made me sad to look at. I think a new design would suit the bright energy of the Centre better. I also wonder about the future of the Centre’s orphaned pup program and have urged the staff working on this to get a lawyer and figure out a way to prioritize amending legislation so that the program can return to releasing the foxes into their own habitats. Otherwise, I personally don’t see much value in “rehabilitating” pups that will never be free and will just build up a captive fox population year after year, as they can live to up to about 12 years in captivity. Yes, having live foxes at the Centre has a great educational value and certainly brings all the tourists to the yard, but is it right to keep them enclosed there indefinitely? Again, Iceland’s relationship with its wildlife baffles me. 

And finally, how do I sum up this experience for you? Was it worth it? Did I like it? Would I recommend this to someone else? As someone who did not study abroad in college, I don’t think I ever really saw the value in leaving your established home to start over from scratch somewhere with just a suitcase. The concept of making new friends, finding new hobbies, and learning a new geography was overwhelming to me. But, I have to say that volunteering at the Centre for two weeks has totally changed my perspective on this. Traveling by yourself, you talk to people you might not normally have struck up a conversation with. You learn about new languages and cultures. You help people without expecting anything in return. Strangers offer you rides or have a meal with you and before you know it you become friends.

Are you reading this blog because you are wondering if you should volunteer? I know that’s what I did before I bought my plane ticket because I was scared and didn’t quite believe it would be for me. It had its ups and downs, but overall, I would describe this experience as totally unique and amazing. And hey, I may have drunkenly bought a plane ticket to Belgium to spend New Years with my new friends, so more to come as the adventure continues. In the meantime, give the Arctic Fox Centre, or some other organization that intrigues you, a shot!

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Where in the World (of Iceland) is Grayson Del Faro? II

He’s in Súðavík. But not for long. I said that already, but I guess I should formally close up the attempted series of Where in the World (of Iceland) is Grayson Del Faro? I know that you know where I am. And why I kinda dropped off the blogosphere. The short answer is Bláberjadagar. Here is a quick little timeline, that also functions as a list of excuses why I wasn’t writing (on this blog or mine or for the paper). 

Day 1 / Arrived and dropped things for the first time in the house formally called Vallahusið but more often referred to as the Volunteer House or the Little House. (This gets confusing because the shed behind the center is also called the little house.) Promptly met Pétur, the mayor of the village, and Dagga, a member of the board of directors for the centre. Ended up late and a little drunk. 

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Day 2 / First day at the centre. We had several groups and I learned the introductory spiel for the museum tours. I also ate a lot of waffles. Alternated between English, French, and what little Icelandic I know and it was difficult but probably good for my brain. It was sunny and I met Freddy for the first time.

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Day 3 / I made hjónabandsæla for the first time. It’s an oatmeal rhubarb pastry that is typically translated as “wedded bliss,” which is weird but wonderful. I obviously kicked ass at it. Marion, one volunteer, left to travel around the Westfjords for a few days. I also picked bláberja for the first time and was promptly told by an Icelander that I picked “the wrong ones.” I’d learn soon what that meant and why. I ate them anyway.

 IMG_6809Day 4 / Today was the first day for one volunteer, Tara, and the last for another, Julian. After volunteering, Tara and I pitched our tents in the campsite and made some French friends over a delightful dice/domino game. Then we all had dinner at Amma Habby, the town’s literally only establishment besides the centre, to celebrate Julian’s last day. Then we spent the rest of the long night in my tent playing Pickomino. Strangely, I have no photos from this day. So here’s one from earlier in the weekend just because!

IMG_6787Day 5 /  I spent most of the day wandering around the town delivering fliers for Bláberjadagar. When I asked what to do if they had no mailbox, I was told that their door was probably unlocked and I could just open it and put it inside. As an American, this was equal parts foreign and charming. I got quickly acquainted with the town, even finding some álfhól or “elf houses.” 

IMG_6860Day 6 / We learned this day how to tell the bláberja (it translates as blueberry but is technically what we call a bilberry in English, a close relative of the blueberry) from the aðalbláberja (main blueberry, which is maybe what we also call a blueberry). Then we picked them all day. After, Tara and I took the bus to Reykjanes to see some seals and to soak our blueberry-sore muscles in this glorious hot spot. We topped it off with beer and a sunset.

IMG_6933 Day 7 / More blueberries. A lot more. This is what I look like picking them. Neat, huh?IMG_2105 Day 8 / Guess what? That’s right, more blueberries. It was the last day before the festival started and we were on a serious missions. Marion had returned from her adventures and we accompanied us in picking them. She didn’t teach us her secrets, but she was eerily good at finding them. She probably picked as much as Tara and I combined!IMG_2129 Day 9 / Let the Bláberjadagar begin! I spent the morning grocery shopping in Ísafjörður. I hate shopping the states but here it is always an adventure into stacks and stacks of the unknown. The food was amazing but the police came from Ísafjörður to shut down our blueberry train: a blue trailor to drive the drunk villagers back to their homes. The party at the town hall featured live music from around the area and naturally, more drunk villagers.

 1549443_10153080849012119_7705969871738466719_nDay 10 / Bláberjadagar continues. I’m running out of time to describe all the details, but there was a giant, inflatable viking ship for the kids to bounce on, face painting for the kids, Mugison singing up in the hills, kumbaya-style concert next to a massive bonfire (fire and ice, GET IT?), and yet another concert in the town hall. And of course, every was drunk again.    10628396_10153083516662119_2354361576370782544_nDay 11 / My last day. Tara and I had the morning off, so we took this lovely walk into the fjord before coming into the centre. Sadly, we missed seeing the inflatable viking ship blow over with all the children still in it (they’re fine, so don’t worry). The view was still absolutely worth it. I wrote my tiny last post and now here we are. 10646618_10153085852927119_225148632607369767_n-1

 

Bittersweet is a stupid word and I refuse to use it. But I certainly have mixed feelings about leaving the Westfjords, and Súðavík especially. As a born and raised city dweller, I thought 10 ten days without a car in a town of 160 people without even a grocery store would be more than enough. I didn’t take all the amazing opportunities of the Westfjords into a account. Nor did I have any idea this place would just be magical, or magnetic, or whatever it is that makes me not want to leave yet. I have plenty to do in Reykjavík and I’ll be glad to do some city things, but I’ll miss it here. I’ll miss Freddy, my little bitey buddy. I’ll miss the other volunteers and the mountains and fjords. I’ll miss the wind. I’ll miss the more frequent absence of wind. I’ll even miss all the babies in their tiny lopapeysur. 

Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a fancy meal. But first: my last waffle. Goodbye, Súðavík. Tonight, where in the world (of Iceland) Grayson Del Faro will be nowhere but a little lost.

Sjáumst. 

 

 

 

 

Ten Days / One Fox

If you couldn’t tell from my Arctic Fox Blog silence or Tara’s posts with pictures of me, I made it to Suðavík. I said I’d be in Holmavík next, but as soon as I posted that, some random Icelanders called me and asked if I needed a ride to Ísafjörður. Midge at the centre posted my phone number on a Facebook group for vestirðingar (people from the Westfjords) and they were heading up. Less than four hours later, I was swilling beer with the mayor of Suðavík in here. It was raining when I arrived, but it was sunny nearly every single day since.

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Now I’m sitting in the café at the Arctic Fox Centre and dawdling on heading back to the volunteer house to pack up my things. The days snowballed into rhubarb and fish and foxes and literal buckets of hand-picked blueberries. I’ve learned traditional Icelandic recipes as well as some improvised and new ones; I’ve spoken a mix of English, French, and Icelandic; I’ve danced drunkenly and sloppily to a Daft Punk cover by a local country band in the town hall (three times); and I’ve let my squeaky, sneaky little fox buddy gnaw on both my hands and my heart. And that’s a bowl’s worth of things from the ocean I’ve done here. For a place with so few people, I’m surprised by how many distractions there were from writing. With my first and last free morning here, Tara and I took a short walk out of Súðavík with a couple of Belgian friends we made around town. We found this.

10646618_10153085852927119_225148632607369767_n I’ll wrap things up more formally in the coming days, but I wanted to give a little shout out on the blog. A shout out is typically a shout out to someone or something. I guess that’d be Iceland, or the Westfjords. But it’s really more like I’m just standing on top of one of these hills, or waterfalls, and just shouting out to anyone and anything around to hear it. So thanks for listening.

Kind(s) of Blue

From across the water, tiny white dots at the base of the fjord appear to make up the entirety of Sudavik, a sleepy, peaceful town located in the Westfjords of Iceland. In years past, the town was home to a petrol station/market as well as a restaurant/bar. Now, the main commerce appears to be the Arctic Fox Centre and a fast food joint called Amma Habby. But as they say, the best things in life are free, and in this regard, I feel like I have struck gold here in Sudavik.

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You see, this weekend is Bláberjadagar, or in other words, the annual blueberry festival (literally translated “blueberries days”). This fairly new tradition has taken place since 2011 and I am told that the whole town, as well as passing visitors, come out for the three-day event. A local musician, Mugison, will be performing. A blueberry pie-eating contest promises to be as entertaining as it is delicious. And who knows what else lies in store. The flier is written in Icelandic after all, but the main advertisement for the event appears to be a bail of hay eerily referring to what lies ahead. 

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The Centre is bustling with preparations and today involved blueberry picking by myself, and Grayson, the other ex-pat volunteer (pictured above) who you may have read about already through his entries before mine. Gray is as creative and casual as he sounds through his writing, easy to talk to and always ready for an adventure. I suspect the Centre attracts this type of person throughout its volunteer program. Having been here three days longer than me, he is already an expert at foxes and blueberry picking – two skills I would have put in the category of “huh?” had you asked me about my abilities six months ago.

Blueberry picking is more complicated than you might think, assuming you have never tried it, which I have not. Pumpkin picking is more my thing, as you would have to be fairly blind to miss a pumpkin in its patch. Collecting blueberries is much, much more precise. In order to find wild blueberries in Iceland, you have to climb to a higher elevation, maybe 200’ above sea level, and then you must look very (very) carefully for them.

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That is Gray, there, looking carefully. There are three kinds of berries you may come across: blueberries, “Aðal” blueberries (translated “main” blueberries), and crowberries. Crowberries are abundant and you will look at them and wish they were what you were looking for, but they are not. Blueberries, which are the WRONG kind, are also quite abundant, growing mixed in with the “aðal” blueberries, they look almost exactly like what we were trying to pick. But they will just not do. 

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The photograph above shows both the wrong blueberries and right (“main”) blueberries. Can you tell which one is tastier? If you guessed the branch on the left with a slightly lighter green leaf and stem, you would have guessed correctly. So after a few (many) tries, I was able to spot the difference and avoid the crowberries all together, which are quite bitter and I don’t recommend you try them.

After about an hour and a bit of wandering imagining how disappointed Midge and Jonas would be if we came back empty-handed, my haul of blueberries barely covered the bottom their tiny pail. 

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But eventually, we began to understand better the zen of the blueberry. Although you can find little patches of them, if you relax enough, they will find you, in abundance. After we realized this, we stumbled upon Bluetopia. Not very impressive in the photo, but I assure you they are hiding in there. Much like a “magic eye,” this requires staring and patience.

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As satisfying as stomping on a bunch of crowberries was, the more peaceful feeling was sitting on the side of a mountain side, surrounded by the right kind of blueberries that suddenly surrounded you, and slowly picking each one by hand.  

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For if you try to grab a bunch at once, they sort of squirt at you and roll away. Tomorrow, we search again, ever thirsty for more of the delicious fruit. I could not feel farther from my home in Brooklyn right now, and I don’t mind one bit.

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What does the fox say?

I just arrived to the Centre earlier this week, but it already feels like home. Though a bit chaotic at times, the kitchen is stocked, the company is friendly, and the foxes are warm. Freddy, the little guy out back, was brought here in May when he became an orphan, after his parents were hunted. A real life version of Bambi, Dumbo, and Copper rolled into one, my heart instantly burst when I saw his tiny face.

Freddy Face

A self-proclaimed waffle aficionado, I seem to have come to the right place for comfort food and good vibes. But as a student of environmental education, my interest in learning more about Iceland’s relationship with its unique wildlife ranks just a fur higher than endlessly enjoying the Centre’s world-famous “fox brownies” or its delicious soup.

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I am learning so much here in such a short time. For example, I was surprised to learn that hunting the arctic foxes in Iceland remains far less regulated than the country’s famously sustainable fishing industry. Before I arrived, I did now know much about these types of issues, aside from the government’s support of its controversial commercial whaling business. The one place that foxes are protected is on the peninsula of Hornstrandir, a remote area of the Westfjords accessible to humans only by boat. The research of the Centre serves to shed a bit of light on the human-fox relationship there, and promotes educational stewardship to its visitors.

Freddy's close-up

I am also finding out that in spite of the hunting, the species continues to thrive, so much so that the government of Iceland questions whether to cull their numbers further. This same question was asked recently in the United States’ (where I am from) Yellowstone national park, about its grey wolf population. Due to the wolves’ competition with local farmers for their livestock, hunting of the wolves recently became legal, with limits on how many can be taken per season. The wolves are viewed to many as a majestic species, and such tactics have been widely criticized. The similar ongoing debate between foxes and humans in Iceland intrigues me. Are the arctic foxes competing with commercial farmers over livestock? It seems we need more data collection on the issue.

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In the meantime, a recently enacted law prohibits any animal raised in captivity, with the aid of humans, to be openly released into the wild, so poor Freddy’s future hangs in limbo. Left with the unfortunate choice between sending him to the Reyjkavik zoo or sending him to live a domesticated life with a family in nearby Heydelur, the Centre searches for answers on what the future holds for their orphan rehabilitation program. The current plan is to develop a larger, more appropriately fashioned habitat for the visiting animals, until an amendment to the legislation can be adopted. Or would it be better for the program go on hold indefinitely? I plan to investigate further, so stay tuned.

Where in the World (of Iceland) is Grayson Del Faro?

There is an expression in English that when any plans go smoothly, they go “without a hitch.” Unfortunately, my hitch-hiking experience was full of hitches, but not necessarily hitch-hiker friendly passersby. I bussed from Reykjavík to Mossfellsbær, as was suggested by an Icelander from Ísafjörður. (I just assumed he would know.) When I got there, I stood just past the roundabout where there was a place for someone to pull over for me. There was an explosion of wildflowers to my right and the sun was bright. I held this sign up with a smile on my face.

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As they passed me, some people glared, some gawked, some looked away, some laughed, some smiled. Some, mostly cars too full of people to pick anyone up, put up their hands in a gesture of futility. I counted 65 before I forgot to keep counting. When a green SUV piloted by a lone middle-aged man pulled over, I asked where he was going and he said Borgarfjörður so he could take me as far as Borgarnes, so I tossed my bag in and we set off. He was a photographer by trade, but worked in the tourism industry as well. When we talked of the Icelandic music scene, I learned that his older son is Sin Fang, an amazing (and kinda famous) musician and his younger son is a videographer who has made videos for his brother, Sóley, and Olafur Árnalds. These are some of my favorites. I smirked out the window thinking, OH, ICELAND, and WAIT UNTIL MY SEATTLE FRIEND’S HEAR I GOT A RIDE FROM SIN FANG’S DAD. We talked of tourism and Iceland, the names of the mountains outside Borgarnes, and the wind. He told me Borgarnes is famous for being “the most windy place in Iceland.” I thought, GREAT, WHAT A WONDERFUL PLACE TO STAND OUTSIDE FOR HOURS. When I got to Borgarnes, I ate a sandwich I’d packed and bought a Kokomjölk, my guilty pleasure, to assuage my guilt about using the bathroom at the gas station. IMG_6689

Then I hoofed it up the road a little way to a place where someone could pull over for me, which was the parking lot of an auto body shop. It was windier and cloudier, so I put on my rainjacket. Far fewer people smiled at me in Borgarnes and far more gawked and glared, which made it harder for me to smile. That, and the fact that I was no cold and tired and my excellent caffeine high was wearing of. But I perservered. After about two hours, an elderly lady pulled over for me. She spoke little English and I little Icelandic, but I said I was going to Vesfirðir. She said that was long way. She stopped suddenly, after only about twenty minutes outside Borgarnes and said this was a better place for me to find someone.

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I trusted her judgment and she turned around and headed back. After another two hours of waiting with some light rain off and on, with about half as many people passing by and no on stopping, I lost hope. In English, we have another expression that when something doesn’t go smoothly, you’re “taking a ride on the struggle bus.” This didn’t feel like that at all; at least the struggle bus is moving. I was standing on the side of the struggle road, wet with struggle rain and cold with struggle wind, going nowhere. I found a campsite and set up my borrowed tent, after a lot more struggle.

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Despite my my poor attitude at this point, I still couldn’t but help appreciate the countryside as I walked into Borgarnes in search of warmth. In a strange twist of fate, I bumped into someone I know from my hometown of Salt Lake City, who now lives in Seattle, and is apparently traveling the Ring Road for a study abroad program. Had I not been stranded here, we wouldn’t have even known the other were here. I want to say OH, ICELAND, but considering we’ve now bumped into each other in two states and two countries, OH, WORLD is more appropriate. After a night in the tent, I had the day to kill before the only bus leaves for Hólmavík at 5pm. I thought I’d post a little update, per Midge’s suggestion. Next up: Where in the World (of Iceland) is Grayson Del Faro? Part 2. (I’ll give you a hint: it’s Hólmavík.)

The Fox and The Hound

Hey, foxy people. My name is Grayson and I am from a city called Seattle in a region of North America called Cascadia. I visited Iceland last year for the first time and was completely taken with it. When I was here, I was literally and figuratively on top of the world. After months of raving about it, an Icelandic friend casually offered to connect me with an opportunity to write for the The Reykjavík Grapevine. My fantasy was right at my fingertips. Even though I was itching for an adventure, I was a little leery to pack up my life and blow with the wind on such short notice. Plus, it would mean leaving my own little fox (my dog) behind.

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I’d been checking the Arctic Fox Center’s volunteer calendar regularly for a few months but nothing was ever open for the time period I had available. I found an amazing deal on a flight to Reykjavík for one specific day but I was still on the edge of certainty. Then I checked the calendar again and found exactly what I was looking for. A spot had opened up starting exactly two days after the flight I’d seen. I booked the flight before I’d even applied to the center. To increase my chances of being offered the position, I thought I should throw in a wild card by ending my very formal cover letter with, “[i]f none of this convinces you that I’m the perfect fit, please see the attached picture of myself in a fox costume with my fox-like dog. That should do it. Takk fyrir!”

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A few days later, the friendly folks at Melrakkasetur Íslands matched my wild card with a mean but hilarious joke. The email I received in response began, “[t]hank you very much for your application, but unfortuately we cannot except your application…” My heart sank like the Titanic. This was supposed to be my grand adventure. But when I read on, I saw, “unless you bring your fox costume over with you and perform your final tour of our museum dressed up!” I laughed, cheered, and responded saying that I accept the offer on their terms.

Now, fast forward a few months. My library is in storage and everything else I owned is sold or given away; I have a list of articles to write an even a deadline; my dog is safe and sound with her other parent; my fox costume is packed into the bottom of an overflowing rucksack; and here I am sitting in my friend’s apartment in Reykjavík making a hitch-hiking sign that says “Vestfirðir / Westfjords.” The adventure starts now—or, rather, in five hours when I need to get on the road. I guess technically I mean get next to the road so a stranger will pick me up rather than run me over. So I’ll cut this short and simply say:

See you soon, foxes!