Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Myvatn (Midge Lake)

Friends: My unrelenting pursuit for the reason why putrefied shark came to be the great Icelandic treat continues. I had hoped one of yesterday's museums might have the answer. Both were chockful of Icelandic arcania. One had a remarkable photo of a crowd of thousands in a field at a confluence of two rivers from decades ago, and Billy Graham was no where to be seen. It was such a famous photo it was unaccompanied by explanation. I had to ask one of the curators about it. She gladly told me it was a gathering of 30,000 of Iceland's 80,000 inhabitants in l932 to commemorate the one thousand year anniversary of its Parliament. She positively beamed when she added, "It's the oldest Parliament in the world." The same museum had a stuffed polar bear who earned a young Icelander instant renown when he shot it in 1969 on the island of Grimsey just north of the town where the museum was, single-handedly repulsing its invasion from Greenland.

Both museums had lengthy dissertations on what a significant event the beaching of a whale has been throughout Iceland's history, so much so that the Whaling Museum had a map of Iceland with a dot at every known beaching over the years. Whales can weigh up to 150 tons, equivalent to 30 elephants according to the Whaling Museum. That's a lot of meat. Back in the old days, when starvation ever lurked, the beaching of a whale was such a godsend, a word was created for such an event ("hvalreki"). That word has come to be a term for any stroke of good fortune. Now when I unexpectedly come upon the Internet, I exclaim, "Hvalreki!"

The hunger issue had me think I had at last stumbled upon the reason Icelanders came to eat rotten shark. Someone centuries ago must have been so desperately hungry that he was forced to eat some long decaying shark carcass he happened upon. The person ought to be a national hero. Despite its notorious, ungodly stench, the stuff was actually palatable, in fact, quite pleasingly so. And ever since, Icelanders have eaten this rot to commemorate the occasion. It is a wonder there isn't a Thanksgiving holiday when everyone partakes. But none of the curators at either museum could confirm such a fable, nor could they offer any explanation. But they all brightened at the mention of this food, as if hoping I had some to offer. One woman said her grandfather always gave her a piece as a treat when she wandered over to his house. She said, "When I'd return home my mother could smell it on me and would say, 'I know where you've been.'"

I've only met one traveler, a cyclist, who has had the misfortune to try it. It was at a campground with some partying Icelanders. He said it was so horrid it made Vegemite taste like the sweetest, most heavenly of Swiss chocolates. And Vegemite was not something he had a taste for. He still remembered gagging on it when he was in Australia. "I'd as soon put Phil Wood grease on my french fires as eat Vegemite," he said. "Avoid that shark at all costs," he advised. "If I had to make a choice I'd rather gobble a jar of Vegemite than even catch a whiff of that stinking shark."

I will continue my research asking every Icelander I can and hope that none happens to have any to offer. It's not likely, as after it is done putrefying, hanging in someone's garage for three months or longer, it is kept under refrigeration. I'm told it can occasionally be found in grocery stores in a package with small individually wrapped cubes. I've been warned that most of it comes from the northwest part of the country, just where I'm headed.

But first I get to do some hiking around Midge Lake. Fortunately the wind is up so the midges aren't a factor. Before leaving for Iceland I had been advised to bring a mosquito head net. I have seen some horse wranglers wearing them in other parts of the country, but so far it has been one of those items I did not need to include in my gear, along with a water purifier and flashlight. All three have remained buried in my panniers, unused. I probably could have done without sunscreen as well, though I have applied a dab a couple of times, more out of habit than real need though.

Congratulations to Tyler on his heroic stage win in the mountains today.

Later, George

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