Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label travel. Show all posts

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Sorry, we gave you the short straw and we’re throwing you off the plane--United

Recently on a United Airlines flight from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville, a young looking 69 year old Asian man was forcefully pulled out of his seat and ejected from the plane.

Videos taken from other appalled passengers showed airport security force dragging an unconscious man along the aisle to the front door. Blood was streaming from his face.

According to eyewitnesses on the plane, the passenger refused to give up his seat because he, being a physician, has patients to see when he gets home.

United explained that the airline overbooked and had asked for volunteers to give up their seats. Apparently not enough found the inducements sufficiently attractive to do so.

The airline then alleged that the unfortunate passenger was randomly drawn by computer program to “voluntarily” give up his seat. When confronted by the bad luck of the draw, the Asian man explained that he has patients at risk waiting for him, and furthermore he wanted to consult with his lawyer.

The airline then called in the Chicago’s finest to bodily eject the man from the plane without so much as a gentle “please.” The official explanation from the airline made the matter even worse.

United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for the airline for having to overbook (greed made me do it) and then having to force passengers to give up their seats. Munoz really riled public opinion against the airline when he then sent an internal memo praising the crew involved in the incident for “following company procedure.”

Mind you, Mr. Munoz was recently honored as “communicator of the year,” by PR Week. “An excellent leader who understands the value of PR,” the trade publication said.

PR professionals are now probably smacking their lips over the prospects of the vast amount of work in store for them to help United restored the airline’s image and reputation. Thorough review and revision of industry practice and company procedure will likely be part of their workload.

The airlines have profited hugely from this era of big data.  Based on their accumulated experience, they can anticipate and calculate to sell out every flight. (How often have you as a passenger flown on a partly loaded plane nowadays?)

Thus when the airline computer makes the right call, the company makes scads of money. Every once in a while, when more passengers come on board than anticipated, you would expect the airline to take the ownership of the consequences rather than ask the hapless passengers to walk off the plank.

Apparently, the UAL stock price took a hit immediately after the incident went viral on social media. One commonly expressed concern was that the outraged Chinese customers would stop flying on the airline. The lucrative China to US routes represents an important source of revenue for the airline.

Over the long term, whether the company market cap will continue to do well will depend on whether passengers decide to fly on United or not. I am a million miler on United, but if the airline can force me off the plane at random, I am not sure I will want to fly on this airline any more.

To reassure me as a passenger, United needs to tell me that the airline does not as a matter of policy pick on Asians for arbitrary brutality. And, from now on, the airline will have revised their standard procedure so that I will not run the risk of being taken off any flight without my consent.

A companion piece in the Asia Times observed that what happened on the United flight pales in comparison with the way passengers are treated by airlines in China. I am nonplused by the point of the beggar thy neighbor discussion.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A personal look at New Zealand today

It’s easy to see why New Zealand would be regarded as the backpackers’ paradise. In one thin chapter of the Lonely Planet devoted to “Extreme New Zealand,” the description of activities include: bungy jumping, spelunking, hang gliding, mountain biking, rock climbing, skydiving, jet boating, parasailing, kiteboarding, scuba diving, sea kayaking and white water rafting—a partial list of activities designed for those seeking an adrenalin rush or two.       

My wife and I were part of a group of 12 that just toured New Zealand. Other than my youngest sister and her husband, the rest of us were family and friends well into their 70s. The one “youngster” that joined our group who we did not know beforehand was in her late ‘50s taking a break from work.

Although one out of three of this group did do the bungy jump, (while the rest of us enjoyed the spectacle) we didn’t do much that would qualify as “extreme” but found New Zealand enjoyable for a host of other reasons.       

We got around both North and South islands by flying on the regional jets of Air New Zealand. In exchange for missing some of the gorgeous scenery we would have seen along the highways, we covered more in the two weeks of New Zealand. 

Consisted of two main islands, North and South, the country is nearly 30% longer than California, but much skinnier in the east-west direction as California has nearly 60% more area than New Zealand—California also has 8 times more people.

The South Island broke away from Gondwanan, the ancient supercontinent, before the arrival of mammals and the gradual formation of the North Island through geological times was the result of deposits from volcanic eruption over the eons. Thus the flora and fauna were allowed to evolve into unique forms greatly different from the rest of the world.

Flightless birds, such as the moa and the kiwi were residents unique to New Zealand. Unfortunately with the arrival of man and their pets, the moa was soon driven to extinction. We had to settle for taking a photo of some of us standing next to the life-size statue by the harbor of Queenstown.

Kiwi birds, now a protected species, are nocturnal. To see them we paid to enter darkened aviary and squint at the brown round objects walking on the floor of a simulated forest. The bird is the national mascot and New Zealanders often refer themselves as Kiwi, the bird and not the fruit that originated from China.

For a tour guide, we got lucky. Overseas Adventure Travel, the tour operator, assigned Devlin Tikitiki to our group. Devlin was a Kiwi but also a Maori who studied and now taught Maori history, culture and language. Throughout the tour, Devlin would entertain us with Maori lore and legend and sang Maori songs and chants.

It also helped to begin our tour in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand, and a visit to Te Papa, the national museum where a trove of Maori artifacts were on display and Maori customs explained.

From Devlin we learned that the Polynesians were great navigators who sailed across the vast Pacific on their double-hulled seagoing canoes (wakas). The ancestors may have originated from the island of Taiwan and migrated eastward and reached as far north as Hawaii, as far east as the Easter Island and finally settled in New Zealand around 8-900 years ago. The Polynesians that settled on New Zealand became known as the Maoris.  There are now strong genetic and linguistic evidence to support this conclusion.

The Polynesians/Maoris followed the ocean currents and winds and observed the positions of the sun, moon and stars. They also watched for and followed the flights of sea birds. Since they did not have a written language, they passed on their knowledge by oral tradition from one generation to the next, a feat I found especially impressive. I wasn’t the only one. Generations in the West looked into alternative explanations and evidence before accepting the seafaring prowess of the Polynesians.

Legendary English explorer, Captain James Cook, was probably the first to observe the linguistic similarity of the Hawaiian and the Maori and come to appreciate the Polynesian knowledge of the Pacific Ocean. He invited one to sail with him as he explored and charted New Zealand and the many islands in the Pacific.

In the late 18th century, Cook reported to Great Britain and Europe of what he found in New Zealand. Thus the migration of Europeans began. By 1840 the British Crown entered the Treaty of Waitangi with as many of the many Maori tribes scattered throughout New Zealand as possible in order to “protect” the Maori under the wings of British imperialism and give encroachment of Maori lands by the new settlers some legal cover.

When Europeans first begin to arrive in New Zealand, there were around 100,000 Maoris already living there. There are now about 600,000 living in New Zealand that claims some sort of Maori lineage. My research did not tell me how many of the original numbers of Maoris survived from the disease and warfare, nor the numbers today that could be considered “pure” Maori, i.e., an ancestry free of mixed marriages.

We do know that the white New Zealanders were not as brutal as the North Americans that systematically wiped out the native Indian populations. There are a number of reasons for the difference in behavior. First, the Europeans that migrated from their original homeland wanted to get away from the culture of class distinction and oppression. They came to New Zealand with an egalitarian mindset. Second, there was plenty of land to go around and third, the Maori farmers provided important sources of food that would feed the new arrivals as well.

The decade beginning 1980 has been a transformative one for New Zealand as the country undertook social and economic reform. By vigorously declaring itself as an anti-nuclear state, the U.S. was forced to downgrade its relationship with the Kiwis from being an ally to being just friends. The New Zealanders also reviewed their relations with the Maori and came to recognize the Maori language and culture as something special and a worthy national treasure.

Renaissance of a culture that relies on oral tradition could be difficult after generations of rust and lack of practice. Fortunately, in the case of the Maoris, the missionaries that came at the turn of the 20th century invented a phonetic alphabet to replicate the Maori language in order to introduce the Bible to the Maori population. The Maori Bible provided the means to put all the oral traditions into a written form and thus facilitated the passing down of the Maori language and stories.

The revival of Maori customs and traditions comes in handy in today’s New Zealand. Tourists are invariably curious about the culture of the country they are visiting. In Kiwi land, without the Maori culture to talk about and the sacred marae meeting house to show, the tour guide would only have the sets of trolls and Golem in Wellington, created by moviemaker Sir Peter Jackson for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, to show as local culture.

The All Black national rugby team has been dominating the international rugby world and is very much an integral part of the New Zealand culture. On days they play, just about every TV is tuned to the game. On the day we were leaving Auckland to return to the U.S., the national rugby team was playing and overwhelming the visiting Australian team to make history by winning 18 in a row.

The New Zealand team is known for the haka, a Maori war dance, which the team performs in front of their opponent before commencing the match. The dance consists of loud chants and shouts, vigorous body movements and stamping feet, and distorted face with bulging eyes and the tongue hanging out, all of which is designed to intimidate the other side before the first whistle. Even if you don’t understand rugby, seeing the haka by the burly rugby players would be worth the price of admission.

New Zealand also had a gold rush not long after the gold rush in California and Australia. The rush attracted Chinese gold miners and they encountered discrimination in ways similar to what they encountered in the U.S. One of the gold rush sites was Arrow River near Queenstown. As the exhibit by the river in today’s Arrowtown told the story, by 1865 the easy picking of alluvial gold were largely taken and the European miners began to move on to other places that promised easier picking.

The local authorities concerned that the settlement would become a ghost town invited the Chinese miners to come and rework the tailings.  They were surprised when the Chinese miners were able to extract more gold from the river where previous miners thought were exhausted.

Soon the Chinese presence aroused resentment and feelings of racial prejudice. To discourage further migration, in 1881 New Zealand imposed a poll tax on every entering Chinese, about the time the US imposed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1883.

The Chinese in New Zealand, according to the exhibit, felt the verbal sting of racial bias but never experienced physical violence and loss of lives, as was the case in the U.S. (There were 5000 Chinese and about 1% of the NZ population at the time.)

In 2002, the prime minister, Helen Clark, formally apologized to the Chinese community for past discriminatory practices against their forefathers. Two years later, the government in a gesture of reconciliation gave a lump sum of 5 million NZ dollars to the community, which the Chinese community put into “Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust.”

The trustees were all descendants of the early Chinese settlers. So far funds from the trust have gone to support projects that preserve the memory of the early Chinese immigrants and to preserve the history, language and culture associated with the early settlers.

Through a mutual friend living in San Francisco, I was introduced to Kai Luey and his wife, Rose, living in Auckland. Kai is a trustee of the poll tax heritage trust, an international business executive and a recognized civic leader of the Chinese community in Auckland.

According to the 2013 census, there are 171,411 Chinese living in New Zealand representing 4.3% of the total population. Only 30 some thousands of the census were descended from the early settlers. The rest immigrated to NZ after 1960. Kai told me that today Chinese in New Zealand enjoy a level playing field. He has been among the group of Chinese that made donations to city park of Auckland and to support the NZ Olympic team in Beijing 2008.

Energetic Kai has been the organizer of a series of annual “going bananas” conferences for the Chinese in New Zealand. In the U.S., banana is a derisive term used to accuse someone that looks like an Asian on the outside but is a westerner inside.

In New Zealand, banana celebrates the successful integration of the Chinese into the mainstream. This is reflective of a progressive country that welcomes diversity, consistent with a tradition that goes back to 1893 when women gained the right to vote, the first nation to do so anywhere in the world.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Notes of a Chinese American Tourist in Iran

Originally posted in Asia Times.

A 17-day tour of Iran does not a country expert make, but it’s certainly enough to form some meaningful impressions of a country that has been virtually blacked out from Americans’ consciousness since the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. As our first visit to Iran, we took a custom tour from Kerman in the south to the oldest port on the Caspian Sea. Thus we got a more in-depth look at Iran than the more customary 10-11 day tours of “history and culture.“
On our first day, we landed at Tehran’s international airport from Dubai via Emirates Air. The morning flight was delayed and by the time we finished lunch, we only had time for one of Tehran’s lesser attractions, the Iran National Museum. As we entered the front garden of the museum, a group of young girls in their school uniforms on an outing saw us and came running to surround us and to give us a raucous welcome. Being on our first day in Iran, we were unprepared for the warm and enthusiastic response.
School girls at the National Museum
School girls at the National Museum
We soon got accustomed to being “accosted” by locals in public places. As we walked on sidewalks, cars would screech to a halt and the (invariably male) driver would lean his head out of the window and shout, “Hello, welcome,” and sometimes “where from?” before driving away. Females took a different approach; they would seek out the women in our group and invite them to be part of their family photos. Being a mixed group of Asians and Caucasians, I think the women viewed us as somewhat of a special souvenir to add to their photo collections.
The Iranians love to take pictures. The younger generation of men and women all seem to have a camera phone, many at the end of a photo stick. Marion of our group quickly caught on and would walk up to groups of women and proactively offered, “Would you like a selfie?” She would be promptly invited to be part of their group photo. They would take the photo with their phone and also one with her smart phone as reciprocating mementos.
Marion So (in white hat) with and Iranian architecture students in Tabriz
Marion So (in white hat) with and Iranian architecture students in Tabriz
We were to have interesting encounters with professional Iranian men and women at many of the famous tourist attractions. We met a pair of twins and their woman friend at the citadel in Shiraz and found out that the parents of the twins live in San Diego. We met two women at the tomb of Artaxerxes II high above the ruins of Persepolis. One of them, the audiologist, was to join us for dinner at our last night in Tehran. They had taken the bus from Tehran, close to 600 miles away, to visit Persepolis. A young couple was spending their honeymoon visiting Masuleh, the one thousand year old, mountainside village, and they approached me to have my photo taken with them. 
Despite the rate of unemployment at over 20%, I got the impression that the Iranians who could afford it, like to spend their time off visiting Iran’s many parks, gardens and other tourist attractions. We saw them at all the stops on our tour. At no time did we feel unwelcome or receive any feelings of unfriendliness from the people we encountered.
Bashing DAESH
The closest conversation we had that could be considered as political was with a mullah at the Quran School in Shiraz with the help of Hassan, our guide who acted as our interpreter. The mullah said Islam is about peace and love of fellow humankind. He pointed out that the Jews, Christians and the Muslims all believe in the same God. He rejected DAESH, his term for ISIS, as an illegitimate form of Islam that must be eradicated. As for Israel, the problem is the continued occupation of Palestinian land by the Israelis. The beginning of the solution has to begin with the return of the land that belongs to the Palestinians, he said.
Mullah at a madrasah in Shiraz
Mullah at a madrasah in Shiraz
We stayed in Tehran, a car congested and noisy city just long enough to visit the Golestan Palace and the crown jewels collection before flying to Kerman, our southernmost destination, to begin our drive back north. From Kerman, our coach took us westward to Shiraz, then northeast to Yazd and west again to Isfahan, then due north to Tehran again. The last leg was northwestward to Zanjan and Tabriz before returning east and south back to Tehran by way of the coast of Caspian Sea. Each leg was 200-300 miles apart. Our zigzag tour left out the northeastern part of the country but covered the heartland of Iran’s historical and cultural heritage.
Tapping qanat tech
As we drove through central Iran and saw endless stretches of arid desert country surrounded by treeless mountains, it dawned on me that qanat was likely the most important engineering invention that the ancient Persians contributed to the world. Aside from being a handy word for the Scrabble player to know, qanat is an irrigation system that can draw water from snow-capped mountains down to towns and villages miles away. The channel has to be carefully sized and gently graded so the water flow will remain smooth (what engineers called “laminar flow”) and not surge or become turbulent and the channel has to be kept underground to minimize evaporation and contamination en route to the final destination. Regularly spaced vertical shafts from the surface allowed for maintenance of the qanats.
The 19th century Shahzadeh Garden in Mahan, where we had lunch on our first outing out of Kerman, was an excellent example of how a qanat can create a beautiful oasis in the middle of the desert. Gushing water cascaded down terraces feeding the flowers and trees that lined both sides of the fountains. The water then exited the garden at the bottom of the hillside and went on to serve the people in Mahan. We were to see other working qanats on other segments of our tour. The qanats reminded me of the karezes in Turfan that we saw while on a tour of China’s Silk Road — same idea with a different name that most likely originated from ancient Persia. 
The Persian qanat is arguably even more significant to the development of the human civilization than the Roman aqueduct. Without the ingenuity of qanats, the arid and desiccated land of central Asia would remain sparsely inhabited to uninhabited, and could not become cradles of kingdoms and civilizations. The idea of the qanat spread from Persia to Syria, Egypt and Morocco in one direction and to Afghanistan and China in the other. The UN finds relevance in today’s working qanats as case studies to help solve the world’s challenges with polluted water.
By the time our coach pulled into Isfahan and drove along the river that bisected the city into northern and southern halves, the parks that lined both shores prompted me to modify my impression of Iran as one endless arid landscape. Tabriz to the northwest was even greener. From Tabriz as we emerged from a long tunnel on the way to Ardabil, we were surrounded by lush forest and were greeted by fog and rain. The countryside along the coast of the Caspian Sea was checkerboards of rice paddies as if we were in China. Because our tour included Tabriz and the Caspian shore, we formed a more complete impression of Iran than those that only saw Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan and Tehran.
China and Iran
From the sampling of exhibits from museums we visited, I got the impression that the Neolithic people in Iran were capable of producing sophisticated forms of pottery — to my amateur eye, every bit as advanced as those from China and perhaps even more advanced. Later, Persians got to be quite skilled working with stone as can be seen at Persepolis. By the same period as Persepolis, China had already developed the technology for intricate bronze casting that seemed to be missing in the Persian culture.
A Neolithic drinking vessel
A Neolithic drinking vessel
Persians’ skill at pottery making may have served as the basis to later develop the technology for producing brilliant blue and green ceramic tiles. This was to be an extremely useful attribute for producing the tiles needed to build mosques and mausoleums according to Islamic design after the Arabs conquered Persia in the 7th century CE. In fact the mosques and mausoleums in Iran reminded me of the Islamic structures I saw in Samarkand and elsewhere in Central Asia. This should not be a surprise, since at times in history, parts of Central Asia were part of the Persian Empire and other times the ruling dynasty came from Central Asia.
Iran today reminds me of China in the early ‘90s. Iran’s highway system is already first rate and far superior to what China had then but most city streets are as unattractive as any in the third world, full of mom and pop store fronts, randomly arranged with no apparent logic. Some shopping malls are said to be under construction but we did not see any in actual operation. I did see a fair amount of construction activity in the cities, such as building metro stations and high-rise residential buildings. 
A typical street in Tehran
A typical street in Tehran
No transgender toilet issue
Public toilets are reasonably available next to mosques and other tourist attractions as well as the customary service stations. Just look for the ubiquitous “WC” signs. It’s not always clear which side is male and which is female but it doesn’t really matter. Every stall has a door for total privacy. In a way, this is unintentionally more progressive than some parts of the US that debate about which toilets transgenders should go to. In Iran it does not matter. The bad news about toilets in Iran is that they are smelly, nearly as bad as those in China or India. Most are the squat kind and the western sit-down kind is not always available.
The hotels in Iran are not quite ready for prime time. Even the 5-star hotels in the big cities miss certain essential features such as washbasins with working stoppers or face cloths. The sewer system can’t handle toilet paper. The hotels seemed to work on fixed rules: If it’s April, there is only heat and no cool air. The bedding comes with a cozy comforter that can only render a warm room even more stifling. 
If you can overlook some of the less than luxurious aspects of being a tourist in Iran, now is the time to go before all the tourist facilities get built up and the sameness of Europe or the US becomes part of travelling around Iran. It’s also possible that local Iranians will someday not find foreign tourists a novelty and lose their keenness to interact with them. Right now, the Iranians warmly welcome foreign tourists and Iran represents a novel destination for the international traveler.
At present, it’s not possible for Americans to travel in Iran as individual tourists but have to be part of a guided tour. I met a young man from China who was travelling by himself. He had quit his job as a water treatment engineer in Singapore to see the world. He had been through Nepal and India and had already spent 20 days in Iran riding public inter-city buses from south to north and found travel in Iran “easy.” I met Mr. Gong in Masuleh, a World Heritage village not on most tours. He will be crossing the borders to go on to Armenia and then Turkey and Lebanon to complete his personal journey. It’s nice to be young and adventurous.
In China, the foremost must visit attraction is the Great Wall. For Iran it’s Persepolis. Qinshihuang started the Great Wall and united China about 2,300 years ago. Darius built Persepolis as his seat to receive tribute from far flung corners of his empire 300 years earlier than the Chinese emperor. Despite being burned down by Alexander of Macedonia a mere two hundred years later, the remains continue to impress visitors with the grandeur of the Achaemenid empire and the artistry of the stone masons in that era. 
Our tour was designed and arranged by the Seattle-based Caravan-Serai and our guide was Hassan Azadi, a veteran tour guide now an independent contractor living in Toronto who flies to Iran twice a year to work during the high season. Both have been outstanding to work with.
Sidebar: Medical prowess in Tabriz with an American aside
I had the dubious pleasure of having to take advantage of Iran’s medical care system. In the middle of the trip, I experienced pain and swelling on my right wrist. A week of icing and anti-inflammatory medication did not help. When we got to Tabriz, a major city, I asked our guide to take me to a hospital that deals with broken bones. I asked Michael, my brother-in-law, who’s a family practice doctor, to come along.
We got to Shahryar Hospital after 6 pm, Hassan checked with a few windows before finding the X-ray department. He made a prepayment and the female technician took two X-rays of my wrist. A physician on duty reviewed the results and determined that I had a hairline fracture in my capitate bone and recommended a CT scan of the region. Hassan again paid for the CT scan and another technician took the scan. By then it was after 7 pm and the doctors that would put on the wrist splints had left for the day.
The next morning, we went back to Shahryar and Hassan asked to jump the queue because we were part of a waiting tour group. The doctor in charge looked at the X-ray (didn’t bother with the CT scan) and his assistant proceeded to slip a cotton liner over my hand, wrist and forearm. The doctor then went on to apply a quick setting fiber cast over the lining. This middle-aged man had a twinkle in his eye and his demeanor was friendly and reassuring. As he was wrapping the impregnated fiberglass fabric around my arm, I joshed by telling him that I was a professional tennis player. He smiled and rubbed my elbow and said, “Ah, tennis elbow.” We were in and out in 20 minutes and I was, at last, pain free.
My entire medical bill including the unnecessary CT scan came up to $590. The day after I came home I contacted my health care provider, one of the best in the Bay Area, and found out that it would be more than three weeks before the orthopedic specialists would have an opening to see me.
Author getting his wrist cast in Tabriz
Author getting his wrist cast in Tabriz

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice

Coming home from a tour of Iceland comes closest to the feeling of having been to another world and back.  Indeed American astronauts trained for their first landing on the moon near the center of Iceland, so my analogy is not far fetched.

In geological terms, Iceland is a truly young landmass, very much a nature’s work in progress. New land is still being created by lava flows and new islands emerge from under water volcanic eruptions, the newest being Surtsey, about 50 years old, off the southern coast of Iceland. (Surtsey is off limits to casual tourists to keep it pristine for earth scientists to study new land creation.)

Iceland is frequently called the land of fire and ice. Fire comes from the constant volcanic and geothermal activities beneath the surface and ice from the weight of massive glaciers above. The consequent landscape reflect those qualities, fields of jagged lava rocks, glacier waterfalls that cut through mountains, jagged if formed after the ice age and flat table silhouetted if the mountains were sheared by the retreating ice. The landscape was light green from the moss that grew on the lava and darker green from the grass farmers planted for the livestock. Iceland has no indigenous tall trees or large land animals.  In order to protect their domesticated livestock, local inhabitants were quick to kill rare sighting of polar bears that landed from drifting icebergs. Before the advent of man, any unfortunate bear that landed on the relatively barren Iceland most likely starved to death.

That's sand eels hanging in its mouth
Before humans discovered Iceland, it was already migratory birds’ favorite honeymoon spot. Millions and millions came to Iceland in the summer months to mate and breed. Approximately 80% of world’s puffins have their nests on Iceland. That comes to more than 20 visiting puffins for every Icelander.  Sadly because of climate change and resulting shift in the food chain, increasingly fewer puffin chicks survive the breeding season and grow strong enough to join their parents for the migration to the open ocean where they spend the rest of their time. Puffin’s average life expectancy is about 40 years, so there is still time for the species to adapt and reverse the path to extinction.  (Our tour of Iceland began in late August, which was a tad late for viewing puffins in their natural habitat, but I was fortunate to photographed one on the water.)

The official settlement of Iceland was attributed to a couple of Vikings around 870 AD. Some Irish priests may have been in Iceland a hundred years earlier but weren’t around by the time the Vikings arrived. Life on the rugged island was far from easy and most did not come willingly but usually under duress, such as having worn out their welcome in their homeland in Norway by committing some egregious indiscretion such as killing somebody important. 

The original settlers came without a written language and had to pass down their traditions and rules of conduct through oral recitations and the integrity of the oral history greatly depended on the memory of those passing them on.

By the 12th century AD, the alphabet was introduced from the British Isles but adapted to represent the Icelandic version of the Norwegian language. The invention of paper had already arrived in the West from China but had not yet found its way to Iceland and writing was restricted to inscribing on the skin of farm animals, understandably a much more costly medium. Snorri Sturluson was one such wealthy landowner/farmer/major chieftain who transcribed much of the oral history into written sagas. He was not only a major contributor to Icelandic history and culture but also that of Norway since much of the roots of the sagas originated from Norway.

According to Icelandic sagas, Leif Erickson was the first to sail to America and even settled there for a part of his life in late 10th and early 11th century AD. His sister-in-law, Gudridur, who was in his party, even gave birth to a boy in 1004 on an island thought to be today’s Manhattan. Her first husband who was Leif’s brother had died and Gudridur was married to someone else when Snoori, not related to Sturluson, became the first white baby boy to arrive in the “new” world. Unlike Iceland, the new world was already inhabited and the Vikings apparently did not find a way to coexist with the American natives and eventually abandoned their settlement and went back to Iceland.

Gudridur was a remarkable woman and well travelled having gone back to Iceland from Greenland then America, and then to Europe and even to Rome to meet the Pope before returning to Iceland and to retire in a convent. Gudridur most likely talked about her days in the new land to the west because according to Icelanders, an Italian was known to have visited Iceland in 1470 and stayed for a couple years to learn all he can about the new lands. This was why 20 years later, the same Italian, Columbus was able to set forth brimming with confidence that he would find land. No doubt, the Vikings would have found his wide margin of navigational error appalling.

In preparing to settle in Iceland, Vikings had to bring everything they needed to survive such as horses, sheep and cattle and even lumber for the construction of their dwellings. After the trickle of migrating Vikings halted, the populations remaining on the island were left to develop in relative isolation. As the main beast of burden, the horses evolved into a hardy breed that can survive the winters in the open. The Icelandic sheep’s wool is particularly soft and the lamb meat particularly tasty. Retrospective study through genetic testing showed (according to the National Museum) that about 80% of the men are descended from the Vikings but 62% of the women trace their origin from mothers from the British Isles, especially from Ireland. No doubt the Vikings supplemented their breeding stock of women en route from Norway to Iceland.

The living conditions on Iceland were harsh, barely allowing the settlers to scrape by, relying on farming and fishing, and did not leave much time for cultural pursuits. The population never exploded nor developed the wealth needed to grow into a great civilization. They also had the good fortune of living on a barren land unmarked by gold ore that would have been the magnet for avaricious European adventurers. Even today, the total population of Iceland is around 320,000, more than 2/3 living in the greater Reykjavik engaged in usual urban occupations and not with farming and fishing. With a landmass of 42,000 square miles, it is slightly larger than the state of Tennessee but at a population density of 3 per square km, Iceland with roughly one thousandth of the U.S. population is only denser than Montana, Wyoming and Alaska among the U.S. states.

While inhabitation of Iceland occurred in relatively recent human history and from a rather humble beginning, the country in recent years has flourished and has become a modern nation with enviable metrics of success. Not least is its relatively low unemployment and possession of world leading technology in the utilization of geothermal energy for electricity generation and hot water for heating. About 95% of the population are regular users of the Internet, a significantly higher acceptance than the rest of Europe. Free access to the Internet was everywhere, including not just the hotels but nearly every café and restaurant provide access for the asking without any complicated log in process. Visitors to the Blue Lagoon would be impressed with the use of the smart chip to monitor entry and exit, personal use of lockers as well as keeping track of purchases of food and beverage while bathing in the lagoon.

Since 2010, tourism in Iceland has been increasing at double-digit rate. For the current year, Iceland expects to welcome more than one million visitors for the first time.  Our tour operator, Overseas Adventure Travel specializes in small group travel limited to not more than 16 per group. OAT 11-day group tours arrived nearly one per day during the summer months and they contracted 25 professional trip leaders in order to take care of them all. On our OAT tour, we saw waterfalls of varying sizes, glaciers in the distant and up close, a landscape of strange lava rock formations dotted by occasional little churches and farm houses, birds and whales offshore and Icelandic horses and sheep on land.
Three representative photos to show the diversity of Icelandic landscape
The Icelanders we met were uniformly warm and friendly, educated and easy to talk to in English. Our affable trip director, Oddur, kept teaching us about all aspects of Iceland with grace and ease. Vignir, our driver, is writing a book based on the oral history of selected Icelanders. Instead of eating in their restaurant in Heimaey, the owners hosted dinner at their home and entertained us with the story of the 1973 eruption that buried part of Heimaey on Westmen Islands but increased the landmass by 20%. They also sang for us and Oddur was invited to join in for a number Kingston Trio made famous. The husband of the couple that home hosted our dinner in Akureyri was a trained journalist, now chief editor of a weekly paper, and an author of several books. His wife is resuming her education pursuing a PhD in museology. Oddur at various stops on the tour would play the church organ or piano for us. I am left with the impression that many Icelanders face years of long dark winter days by developing other skills and interests making them interesting people to interact with.

Statue of Leif Erickson, a gift of the US government
(so the story about him must be true)