Leah and I have been really looking forward to visiting Iceland, the highlight of our transatlantic trip. This morning we cruised up the channel to Reykjavik harbour, lined with snow dusted mountains. When we arrived at the port, I stubbornly refused to get on a bus into the City Centre, unapologetic pedestrian that I am, resulting in an hour long walk through the industrial port area, then through a series of public housing towers, and finally along a street with forlorn looking banks. Later we found out that this was now referred to by Icelanders as the Avenue of broken dreams.
We met Stefan and Ursula of the ‘Free’ Reykjavik Bike Tour in the city centre, who we had been in touch with via e-mail beforehand. They just started the business several months ago, and rely on tips to make money from the venture, which they report has been extremely popular. We were driven to the bike shed, where eight of us were matched with bikes for the tour, and then set off, following Stefan like ducklings along the pavement (riding on the sidewalk is permitted in Iceland). I have never seen such courteous behaviour from drivers. They stopped for us even when we didn’t have right of way at junctions. We rode through the city, which was somewhat bleak, but with the characteristic clean lines of Scandinavian architecture.
We stopped by Iceland’s parliament building, the site of the recent ‘pots and pans revolution’. Growing out of the financial crisis that hit Iceland particularly hard, one man had enough. Hordur Torfason was so upset with the irresponsible behaviour by the banks and the inability of the government to protect Icelanders’ savings that he rented a flat bed truck and speakers, showing up every Saturday to protest outside the parliament. Over the following weeks, the protest grew from a dozen people to hundreds and eventually to thousands. In January, with a crowd of citizens banging pots and pans together so that government officials inside the parliament could no longer ignore their demands, riot police lined the parliament building. It got heated as police used pepper spray to keep the crowd back. One teenager threw a brick and hit an officer in the face. Instead of descending into violence, many in the crowd turned around to protect the officers from any further projectiles.
Elections were held, and a coalition of social democrats and the left green party came into power. The old finance minister was sacked. Stefan reported that the heads of government departments weren’t particularly qualified or experienced in the areas which they governed- they just happened to have wealth and influence. Certainly sounds familiar…
Stefan told us that there were only 700 police (including office staff) for the whole island’s population of 400,000, and not always enough of them to deal with violent crime and theft. He said that since the recession started, there has been an 80% increase in burglaries and a huge increase in the drug trade, particularly indoor marijuana growing operations.
Iceland’s incredible natural resources have not escaped the notice of the multinational corporations, and Stefan said that he has seen a significant degradation in the natural areas of the island over the past decade. Particularly threatening has been the spread of aluminium smelters by such corporations as Rio Tinto. He said there was an ongoing tension between the tourist industry who wanted to preserve these wilderness areas (albeit for tourists to fly in) and the multinationals who sought to rape the land for extraction and profit. The pressure to allow further exploitation has mounted with the desperation caused by the financial crisis. Perhaps this is part of the plan.
An organisation known as Saving Iceland is dedicated to stopping this destruction and preserving Iceland for future generations, using peaceful direct action. Somehow, Stefan reported, there always seemed to be enough police to act as security guards for the corporations, an increasing trend internationally as evidenced by the collusion between police and Eon energy company documented by the Guardian.
After the bike tour, we convinced Stefan to drive us out to Thingvellir National Park, where people walked from all over the island in 930 to establish the first Icelandic parliament. The volcanic landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen- just breathtaking. We were lucky enough to witness rainbows above the landscape and when we arrived at the visitor’s centre, we were greeted by ptarmigans with woolly feet, a very odd looking bird indeed. After a brief visit to a waterfall, Stefan dropped us back at the ship, and we bid farewell to this fascinating island in the mid Atlantic.