Part 3: Kissing the Kidney Stone

Roadside sign of a (?)town, we couldn't see any buildings nearby.

We were finally on our way into Reykjavik. It's nearly an hour bus ride to the capital from the airport, driving past undulating, broken lava fields; signs declaring towns or cities otherwise invisible, a pedestal supporting a small, horribly-twisted rental car (a warning to tourists), sheep - mostly in threes - scattered among the shrubbery. The ocean, when we could see it, was a deep, intense blue-green. Mountains appeared, far off and away: hazy, cloaked, or veiled in cloud tatters.

Distant Mountains of Iceland

Cracks and Crevices

It was all incredibly beautiful, but old Geology courses kept whispering alarms in my head. This land is restless, tumultuous. It burns all roots: though it may allow fifty generations' depth to dig in, they all will burn. Time and again, they will burn. Iceland, so aptly, oddly named, dies in flames every thousand years or so. Volcanoes erupt, lava spews from fissures to devour the land,livestock, and people. Signs of these catastrophes are everywhere. Cracks frame the landscape's breadth, they run to the horizon; sharp-edged cracks, shallow ankle-breakers and deeply-dark abysses. The soil is thin, dark, volcanic; the vegetation spare. Here at this cauldron of fire and ice, trees do not grow tall, for their roots have no depth to defy the winds of Iceland. It's a place where a little knowledge - of geology at least - makes one appreciate smaller calamities threatening his own homeland, and wonder how the citizens here cope.

View from our room in Reykjavik
Salvation Army Guesthouse

My dark musings were displaced by our arrival in Reykjavik. We checked into the Salvation Army Guesthouse, then strolled around town for awhile. It was a typically-quiet Scandinavian Sunday; many stores were closed; but it was pleasant just to wander the cobbled streets and take in the scenery. We walked through a nearby common paved with flat stones, decorated with small statues and a fountain or two. We passed a magnificent mosaic mural. We walked through a large hall filled with flea market booths, where we tried some dried seaweed (think crunchy, salty autumn leaves), grabbed two cups of coffee and some pastries (USD 16), then wandered around Reykjavik some more. Not much stands out in memory, though this isn't the city's fault. I was feeling a bit 'off' - not sick; but the frightening possibility of another bout with tremendous pain hung over us both. This pall, a long flight, short layover, Robin's missing clothes, and the shear surreality of being across the ocean far from home, made our entire visit to Iceland hazy for both of us.

Beautiful Mosaid Mural in Reykjavik

Close-up of Mosaic Mural in Reykjavik

After a fitful short nap back in our room, we headed for the tour bus. These vehicles seem narrower and perhaps a bit shorter than the behemoths in the States, but are otherwise similar to charter busses. We pulled away from the station and moved quickly out of town, heading down roads that narrowed a bit at every interchange. We were out of the city in less than five minutes, driving down narrow two-lane roads in what passes for country this far north. There's a joke in Iceland: if you are ever lost in the woods, stand up. There just aren't many trees to speak of, and none are tall. It is a dissembling, subtle missing link in one's worldview, to see so few trees.

Riders on Icelandic Horses along the tour road.

The weather was typical Iceland: bits of sunshine dotted around showers and hours of rain. It was cloudy as we started, then overcast, then sunny; and again as we drove along the cycle would play over. Despite the dampness, I enjoyed the scenery. Ragged clouds make an appropriate garland for the rugged, haunting landscape. Rainbows appear and vanish, mountains melt out of clouds and clouds roll over ridges. Boulders, shrubs, stunted trees and stoic sheep accent the undulating plains along the roads.

View at Thingvellir

I think our first stop was Thingvellir, because I was able to walk around there for awhile, and remember it. We didn't stay long, because the afternoon tour packed everything in a shorter timeframe, so we weren't able to explore much. I did walk down the path that ran into the gorge, between two broken walls of basalt. This place lies astride the spreading rift separating North America from Europe. You can literally stride from one continent to the next here.

More relevant to Iceland as a society, this is where the early Viking lords met to hammer out their political affairs, the seat of government and the scene of some of Iceland's major cultural decisions. It was here that Christianity and Paganism vied for the hearts of the nation, here that the debate escalated to a desperate stalemate. In the end, one man was chosen to decide Iceland's religious fate. The high pagan priest of the land contemplated for 3 days before reconvening the Althing - Iceland's Parliament - and revealing his decision by casting all his Norse idols into a nearby waterfall. In one of the more peaceful religious transitions in history, Iceland became a Christian state.

Gulfoss, the Golden Waterfall

We were hustled back on the bus for the short ride to that waterfall, Gulfoss. What I managed to see of it was pretty awesome, but by this time another painful attack was coming on. We were over an hour's drive from the city now, sharing a bus with 30 other tourists, and here on the walkway to the falls I was doubled up in agony. I remember telling Ra to go on ahead and I dimly recall staggering back up to the tourist center. I spent the rest of the time there lying in a toilet stall, trying not to frighten anyone else. I was uncertain what to do. Thinking there might be a way to get myself back to Reykjavik, a approached the tour guide. She knew of no way to do that, but suggested drinking some öl, which I politely declined. Heaven knows it might have helped, had I been able to stomach beer. The prospect of dealing with excruciating pain and violent regurgitation wasn't appealing. That's one argument against tea-totaling, I suppose.

We were both worried, being first of all uncertain what the problem truly was, additionally that we were a long way from anywhere in a foreign country in which, our guide told us, there is only one hospital; and perhaps above all that my antics would frighten the other tourists. The next couple hours I spent clenching a wallet in my teeth whenever I had to be on the bus, or lying in a lavatory stall when one could be had. I convinced Robin to spend each stop looking at the sights - it would help get her mind off our troubles, and one of us would at least appreciate, perhaps even remember, the tour! I know it didn't truly put her mind at ease, but it did give her something else to think about for a few moments during the attack; and thanks to her, we have a few pictures of these places. As for me, I can't convey or remember much at all about them. My mind was fully absorbed with other matters. I can't recall another time I've had to deal with so much pain for so long with so much going on around me.

Geysir, for which all other geysers in the world are named.

Little Geysir

Robin took these pictures in the Geysir Field.
Lake in a crater
By the time we got here, I was feeling well enough to stumble around a bit. I did however, miss our guide's description of it.

The attack didn't last the whole rest of the tour, but by the time I was feeling well enough to notice my surroundings, we had left the natural wonders and were making our last stop at what can only be described as a tourist trap, called Eden. I'm uncertain what the significance of the place was, other than offering a central point for purchasing ice cream, trolls, and other souvenirs. It would have been a fine place for a kidney stone attack, compared to everywhere else we'd visited - poor timing on my part. We walked around the knickknack shelves, taking pictures of Robin's peep with the trolls of Eden until the bus was ready to roll again.

Trolls in the Eden Souvenir Shop

We arrived back in Reykjavik and offloaded. No doubt, the tour guide was happy to make it back without refunding everyone for a trip cut short and a detour to the hospital. Despite my best effort to be inconspicuous, I'm sure my struggles affected the other tourists onboard; but at least we had completed the trip.

$15 Hamburgers!
Food is expensive in Iceland.
Divide these numbers by 50 to get
approximate value in USD.

Robin and I headed back to our little room and napped awhile. Time is an immaterial matter in the far north during the summer, so after awhile we decided to head out for a bit, perhaps find some place to eat that wasn't too far outside our budget, if such could be had. On our earlier excursion we had seen that the average price of a hamburger there is $15. But since it was to be our last fling in Iceland, we figured at least we might be able now at least to eat in peace, if not prosperity. We found the showers and got washed up for dinner, but by the time I was ready another Dreaded Event was churning in my nether regions.

These attacks really take a lot out of their victim; I didn't have the mettle for another one so soon after the last. And this latest was a doozy. Being uncertain that these were kidney stone attacks, and as the pains began to overwhelm me, I started to wonder if it might be something far worse. Perhaps I wouldn't need an Icelandic volcano to kill me, there was a perfectly adequate eruption within that was doing the job!

With all this pain, uncertainty, and fear I finally asked for serious medical help. Someone called a taxi for me, and when it arrived, Robin jumped in the front while I fell into the back seat yelling "Sykehus! Sykehus!" - embarrassingly closer to the Norwegian version of "hospital" than the Icelandic term. The driver reassured us in decent English that we were a scant few minutes from the hospital, and seized the opportunity to drive away speedily, exactly where, I knew not nor cared.

I was now convinced that something internal had ruptured and was spewing Bad Fluids all over my innards. Without a certain diagnosis of my ailment, I was suddenly confronting the possibility that I might be suffering a deadly condition in a foreign country. I hadn't looked up anything about Iceland's health system: they might use voodoo for all I knew! What would I do if Robin were left alone here? Well, that was a silly question - but the thought arose that she might be left alone, and I was responsible. How could I have put her in this predicament?! How much would it cost to cart a body back to the U.S.? Where would she stay, how would she cope? Who would take care of her? It didn't really occur to me that the body in question would be mine and that, whatever she did about the situation; I wouldn't be doing anything if it came to that!

We arrived at the hospital in the promised few short minutes. It was dark, perhaps they closed at night? But no, the sliding doors opened and we walked into what appeared very much like a regular, small city hospital. I was still in agony, so Robin dealt with the bureaucracy while I shuffled back and forth, bent double, wailing and groaning. A gurney arrived and I dropped on it, a nurse took my pulse and blood pressure and asked a few questions, pretty much the same routine I underwent back home, except much quicker. No shamans were involved. After a brief eternity, I was wheeled into a private room. The nurse - or a doctor, or perhaps a passersby, it's all a fog to me - said that since I had been in another hospital recently, I presented a serious health risk and had to be isolated for safety. It turns out Icelanders, living off the beaten track, out of the mainstream, have less exposure and therefore less resistance to several ailments, especially the currently-fashionable medically-resistant strains that are causing trouble around the globe. Here, these are a life-threatening risk of epidemic proportions.

I don't recall how many nurses attended me during that night. I do remember they all wore impressive layers of protective gear, and a few would barely enter the room, never mind touch me. I couldn't blame them, nor did I have any desire to be the 21st Century's version of Typhoid Mary by killing off half of Iceland; but it was disconcerting to be treated this way. Because of this, one kind woman stood out by willingly working close to me through the night. Katherine was her name, I believe. I'm not sure, but I think she was the only person who actually touched me through the entire affair. While I screamed and wailed and apologized to Robin for the incident, Katherine calmly did all the nursely duties, taking my blood pressure, hooking me up to IV, etc., without treating me like a poisonous snake. To this day, I pray that she isn't sick or dead because of her kindness!

I also remember a young doctor, decked out in protective gear, who nevertheless came to my bedside during a particularly painful bout. He looked me over and spoke to Katherine, who went out and returned with some mysterious small vials. While she was gone, the doctor gave me his diagnosis: I had 'colicky' kidney stones, and could expect these attacks until they passed. The only treatment would be pain medication, strong pain medication. Powerful stuff: stuff so strong, they had to give me a shot of some other medication to cope with the nausea the real stuff would cause. Who knows what the stuff was! I know this: Katherine gave me a shot then plugged a vial into my IV. In moments, my brain felt like it was squeezing out of my skull. My body began to stiffen. Something was terribly wrong. I asked Katherine what was happening, I asked the doctor if I should feel like this. I was really frightened now, positive that Robin would be left alone, that I was dying here in Iceland, a thousand miles from home. I remember apologizing to her profusely, and then I remember no more.

I awoke feeling fine. It was dark and quiet. Robin slept in a chair beside me, leaning onto my bed. It was astonishing - I felt perfectly fine. It was also a bit embarrassing, given the shenanigans I'd thrown earlier. I had no idea what time it was, so after waiting briefly for someone to come along, I poked my head out the door to look around. Two nurses leaned against a gurney nearby, apparently enjoying a break. They looked at me, a bit disconcerted, when I stepped into the hall. They told me I had to stay in my room. I asked them to get the doctor, and returned to my cell, impatiently waiting. Now I was exasperated - I was going to survive. Other concerns arose then, particularly expenses. I had no idea what it was costing me to lie in this room, but it couldn't be cheap. Every minute was no doubt chewing up a significant amount of our hard-earned anniversary account. Never mind the budget - that was long broken, I was sure - the possibility that we wouldn't have enough cash for lodging elsewhere loomed. I didn't like the idea of camping in this rainy, cold place, suffering kidney stone attacks while we waited for a flight home.

I needn't have worried, as it turns out. The good folks at the hospital were as anxious to send me off as I was to be off. A young doctor came in, perhaps the same young doctor; with Katherine alongside - she was pulling a double shift and had apparently been voted the sacrificial lamb to deal with me. Katherine wrapped up some medicines, affixing a label with their name and usage instructions in English while the doctor explained them to me. It was about 4a.m. Everyone wanted to ensure I made it for my morning flight to Norway. I had six doses of whatever killer medications they had given me in the night. The doctor wished me luck and left as Katherine removed the IV, bandaged me up and handed me the medicines. I dressed, then Katherine accompanied us out to the door and called a taxi for us. We were abruptly released from the hospital, it seemed. I made the tactical error of inquiring about paperwork - honesty is an expensive policy sometimes! Katherine went away a moment, then returned and led us to the billing department. The night's entertainment cost around USD 650. Theoretically we would be reimbursed by our own insurance, but anyone who has ever done anything like this knows exactly what that theory is worth. Insurance companies convince me that there is indeed a Purgatory: Hell doesn't have enough room for them all. To any readers who work for an insurance company, say hello to my Uncle Henry when you get the chance.

In any case, we stumbled back into our little room at the Salvation Army Hostel with a little nap time to spare before grabbing a bus for the fifty minute ride back to the airport.

Our return there was uneventful, but our first stop at the help desk revealed just how uncertain our communication of the day before had been. Robin's luggage had made it to the airport and they had sent it to the hostel. It wouldn't make it back in time for our flight out. We did our best to clearly detail our itinerary in hope of Robin's pack following us to Bergen. Robin was beside herself by now, fatigued as she was and still wearing three day old clothes; but there was nothing more we could do. We stepped in line and wound our way to the baggage check-in, where we hesitantly surrendered our remaining luggage; then headed for our gate.

Walking off the plane onto the tarmac

Keflavik Airport is smaller than Albany Airport - we had stepped onto tarmac getting off our flight from Boston - but boarding this flight was the familiar walkway to the airplane. Once again, we sat down onboard, the specter of my malady still shadowing our plans; but at least now I had some consolation in the form of a diagnosis, and powerful medication tucked in my camera bag to deal with the issue. We were Bergen bound!

I can't honestly say I've really visited Iceland, though I've seen a bit of it, and I can vouch for its beauty. Ours was too rushed a visit to really experience the place.
Looking back over what I've said about it, much seems negative, but the negative stuff was going on inside me. The land, Iceland, was awesome. I've written about its terrifying geological aspects, but that should stop no one.
Go, see the land, feel the energy below your feet. It is frightening, it should be; but meeting the people, seeing the will of Icelanders to carry on, to endure despite the dangers, is worth the trip. They are the real Iceland, the amazing part of the country. They have an amazing faith in the future. Katherine, willingly working on me, is a good example of that faith. The tour guide, stoically offering advice to an American gringo raining on her parade; the taxi driver calmly taking me to the hospital; the good folks at the Salvation Army hostel; all wonderful people living on an island of active volcanism, living optimistically, confident in the future. I hope to see them again, soon. Soon, and next time, healthy!

Next Installment: Arriving in Norway.