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Monday, September 22, 2003

Akiko's Ambush

I met a Japanese girl in Reykjavík and she invited me to spend the night at her abode in Hashimoto (橋本), high in the hills west of Tokyo. Akiko is an artist, and the fact that I encountered her in Iceland augured auspiciously for me, owing to the adoration I hold for that strange northern nation. We collided in the kitchen at the Reykjavík Youth Hostel, at the peak of my Nordic vacation. She was with a nerdish Japanese guy, garbed in Gore-Tex; I was starved and addled with blisters, but hungry for some stimulation. They were, it seemed, intent only on peeling a ninjin, but I nonetheless introduced myself to them, and asked if they were Nihonjin. When I dropped that I also lived in Japan, her eyes gleamed, without trepidation. "You should come homestay with my family, in Hashimoto," she suggested, scribbling her name, email address and keitai bangou on an official invitation. "We have had visitors from overseas come and stay with us, and they were always full of appreciation."

That's not exactly how it happened, but it is a pretty close approximation. Akiko actually gave me her details the following morning, when I bumped into them on the way to their repatriation. I still had a week of my exploits left, walking everywhere to save money, sleeping in airports, skimping on accommodation. I camped out in the Flugvöllur in Keflavík, then the Lufthavn in Copenhagen, and I was gearing up for an allnighter in Singapore's awardwinning Changi Airport, when I got fast-tracked for an earlier evacuation. Consequently, it took me a full month to take Akiko up on her offer, and get out to her habitation. The night I finally made it to Hashimoto there was a typhoon bearing down, which added an eery ambience to the proceedings, and plenty of precipitation. A small earthquake also sprang up out of nowhere and some people were injured amidst the devastation. I was at the Renoir Café in Uguisudani when the tremor struck, engaged in my vocation. Chandeliers shook, waiters tumbled around balancing saucers and plates... that might be an exaggeration. Let's just say that concentric rings shuddered through my cup of hot green tea. Others might have taken that as an omen, or a warning to stay home. I, however, interpreted it as a sign of Divine Predestination. Talk about destiny! that is what I thought, sipping my green tea. Talk about meant to be.


Nonetheless, I almost missed dinner on accounts of getting lost in the labyrinth of Shinjuku Station. By the time I had arrived, and removed my shoes in the genkan, the family were sitting down to dinner in the living room, patiently waiting for my presentation. There were three generations kneeling around that table including the grandmother with gummy mouth and shocking blue hair, her back bent in prostration. The TV was on and was running a program about some young dandies exploring the fish markets of Hakodate, digging up octopuses, monster fish, any species of crustacean. From out of a deep tub an unsuspecting squid was hauled, to be splayed for the inspection of the nation. (That's not exactly how it happened, but it's a pretty good narration... ) Akiko, being a vegetarian, condemned this aberration. Akiko's mother asked me if I was a vegetarian too. No, I replied... wondering how that might diminish my reputation. While the parents might approve my meateating manliness, the daughter was the one I needed to impress. What a complicated game to play! I thought, picking up my chopsticks. Way too much complication! Apart from that, dinner progressed smoothly, although I can never eat heartily when I am on a date -- and I kind of assumed it was a date of sorts, charged with all kinds of weird flirtation. We ate tempura, the Portuguese/Japanese battered fish and vegetable combo which I normally like -- but tonight I was too nervous for degustation! Easier to digest was an Okinawan dish, gouya champuru (ゴーヤーチャンプルー), little bits of pork paired with some insanely bitter vegetation. I impressed the family with my (poor) Japanese conversation. Then, abruptly, all the adults excused themselves, and disappeared to bed. It was only me and Akiko left.I was just tense with expectation!


 
緊張したね!

Akiko said she needed to make a call, so I excused myself and wandered into the kitchen. I managed to liberate a silver can of Asahi Super-Dry from the refrigerator, and find a laptop sitting on a work station. I turned it on, loaded up Rokk.Is, and filled the room with the sounds of the latest Icelandic pop sensation. It was ethereal to me, but much to my disappointment Akiko didn't seem to share my fixation. She was preoccupied by whatever business was happening on the line. When she eventually hung up and wandered into the kitchen, her face was creased with vexation. "You're welcome to stay here tomorrow," she said, "but I have to go to Yokohama tomorrow morning... I need to see my boyfriend."

That, honest, is a direct quotation!

I was struck with the fear that I had completely misread the situation, and made a big mistake by heading out to this location. Fortunately Akiko threw me a lifeline: "But what about you? Do you love me? How do I know you that you love me?"

One of her ears, elflike, was protruding from her purplish hair. It made me think of Iceland, and my heart swelled with infatuation. "Of course I love you!" I blurted, grabbing her hand. "I luuurve you!" I noticed her hand felt limp, and looked somewhat sallow (she later explained this was a consequence of her medication.)

In any case, my words and actions had the desired effect... I received a kiss of some duration! But what about the boyfriend? I wondered... What threat did he pose? She met him just after her trip to Iceland, and just like me, he is a foreigner. Talk about a gaijin invasion. A battle of the wills is looming, I can tell... and only one of us will survive elimination.

"I don't know what to decide?" Akiko kept saying. "I like you both!"

Ah, what a complicated game we play. Way too much complication!

Straddling Two Worlds

Well, after years of fantasizing about Iceland, I finally found myself there last month, for the first of hopefully many trips. The only trouble was, on the way to Iceland I had stopped off for a few days in Copenhagen in Denmark, and spent almost all of my money in that crazy , freewheeling city. I didn't even have enough money for food, and travelling around Iceland was out of the question. Actually, apart from ripoff youth hostel room (2000 kr. or something like that), I had only the money for the most basic of purchases: a couple of loaves of bread and pieces of cheese for example, a few cans of light Viking beer from the supermarket, some slices of meat. Luckily I had prepared for this scenario by bringing a host of cheap, mostly tasteless items from Japan -- cups of instant noodles for breakfast, a box of green tea sachets which became the gourmet highlight of my holiday. I swear it was the vitamin C from the green tea which kept me going as I gradually starved myself in Iceland, losing a lot of unwelcome weight in my meantime! And as we all should know by now, green tea gets you high!

I was so broke I couldn't even afford to go anywhere once I arrived in Reykjavík, and had to travel everywhere on foot. This was not quite the tragedy that you might imagine because I was so happy to be in Iceland, even striding around Reykjavík was an unearthly experience. Of course I looked at the distant mountains and yearned to be able to reach them, but there were plenty of things to see in walking distance of the youth hostel. Gold boats down at the harbor, funky Nordic houses with blue corrugated iron walls and triangular roofs. The strangest sky I have seen in my life, which words can't describe. I was enchanted! Yes, the weather was often terrible. Usually I don't like the wind when it is blowing strong, but in Iceland I could forgive it. The same goes for heavy metal music, which seems to be popular in this North Atlantic nation. In other countries I can't stand it, but in Iceland it seems appropriate. It's the perfect soundtrack for a Viking wasteland.

I am proud to say that I never felt bored during my whole 8-day stay in Iceland, not even when I had to spend all night sleeping out at the airport because I didn't have the money for the youth hostel that night. The only problem is, I walked so much my feet soon developed enormous blisters, which plunged me into agony whenever I took my shoes off. But what was I going to do, hang around the youth hostel all day and recuperate? There was no chance to rest -- I had to push on, walking on the sides of my feet (which is a hard way to get around, especially somewhere like Reykjavík, where everything is so spaced out!) Anyway, I managed to scrape enough money one day for the bus ticket to Þingvellir, the ancient parliament which straddles the European and American continental plates, west of the capital. It felt great to finally get out of the city and see some of the scenery. At Þingvellir it was cold and windy (what else is new? this is Iceland!) I ambled around the big canyon there, formed from the aforementioned American and European plates sliding away from each other, as fast as a fingernail grows -- a gorge of jumbled stones and moss, quite possibly home to fairies (or so the Icelanders would believe). I've never seen so much moss -- it was the kind of moss wonderland I expected to find in Iceland. In some of the more secluded corners that the wind couldn't reach, when the sun peaked out from the clouds, I wished I could lie down upon these moss beds and have a nap.

I was crabwalking my way through one of these meandering gorges, somewhere near the waterfall, and keeping a mental track of the time so I wouldn't miss the bus, when I bumped into a friendly Italian man with graying beard and an impish bent. He was dancing from stone to stone, awed by the surroundings. "This is so wonderful!" he said. "Look at those beautiful rocks over there! Magnificent!"

I should have assumed then and there, by the way that he was prancing from rock to rock, that something was amiss here, and that I was falling in with a fairy. A moss fairy, no less. I should have heard the warning bells. Poor gullible, trust-everybody-me. Little by little, I fell into the trap.

Let me put it this way: I can see now why they always say don't take rides with strangers! The Italian guy (I can't remember his name -- maybe something like Rodolphe) promptly announced, as the wind swept his hair: "Let's go to the spa -- to the Blue Lagoon! There's nothing better than ending your day in the hot waters of the Blue Lagoon. It is the best thing in Iceland. Come on, let's go."

"But I have a ticket for the bus," I said, "and it goes back to Reykjavík soon."

"Forget about the bus," he said. "I have a hire car. I can drive you back to Reykjavík tonight. And besides, I can show you round this corner of Iceland -- it's more than you can see in the bus."

He had a point there, and despite the obvious risks of "riding with strangers", I decided not to be a pussy. From my point of view, it was an offer too good to refuse. I had been forced to challenge Iceland by foot ever since I arrived, and here was this guy offering to drive me around, in his hire car. Besides, I could never have afforded the bus ticket to the Blue Lagoon, which I was interested in seeing. He seemed like a nice guy. Actually Germanic in race, lived near the Austrian border in northern Italy. Ran a record shop, liked Icelandic bands such as Sigur Rós (nice one). Went to Iceland every summer, for the past three years at least. (I can imagine doing the same thing, but next time I want to go there in winter. Just to see the real polar night!) So, I agreed to ride with him. We passed the bus on our way out -- suckers! I thought, looking at the passengers cooped up inside. I had moved a step beyond them -- I was now seeing Iceland by car!

And what a rush it was sitting in the passenger seat with Rodolphe as we sped down the narrow roads being buffeted by winds, with the hills green and strange all around us. This was the Iceland I had been dying to see! As we headed south to the Blue Lagoon, I looked at his hand and wondered: where's the wedding ring? I remembered concluding that he had to be gay. In my naive way, I didn't think that would be a problem. (Not that I have a problem with gay men, mind you -- they just always seem to want to hit on to me! They get the wrong idea about me, when I am just trying to be friendly!)

The area immediately surrounding the Blue Lagoon is one of the strangest and most impressive moonscapes I have ever inspected. It is the closest thing I have to an alien world I've encountered, and everything is exotic -- ground, sky, you name it. Out of the fields of lava suddenly pools of bright blue water appear -- the world-famous Blue Lagoon! According to explore-reykjavik.com, the Blue Lagoon is "located in the lunar-like landscape of a lava field... accidentally created by the run-off water from the Svartsengi power station. The reputed health benefits (particularly for skin ailments) of its mineral-rich, geothermal seawater have made it one of the most visited locations in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon (tel: 420 8800; fax: 420 8801; e-mail: lagoon@bluelagoon.is; website: www.bluelagoon.is) is situated on the Reykjanes peninsula, about 50km (30 miles) southwest of the city. Bus 5 leaves Reykjavik's central bus station three times a day, and the journey takes about 40 minutes)."

It was blowing a gale and absolutely freezing when we arrived in the barren, almost godforsaken car park adjoining the lagoon, in Rodolphe's little vehicle. I was out of cash, but thankfully Rodolphe (sugar-daddy style) offered to donate some gold Icelandic coins to help cover the rather lofty entrance fee (1200 kr.). Into the showers where we stripped naked and soaped up before putting on a pair of swimming trunks, and hitting the spa. It was a wonderful and surreal experience, especially after it started hailing, and my head was softly massaged by falling chunks of Arctic ice, while my trunk was churned by the warm current underneath! Fire and ice -- that's the Icelandic polarity.

Rodolphe suggested a spell in the sauna, which I didn't really like, and which should have provided me further confirmation of his sexuality (pardon the stereotypes here). However, he hadn't made a move on me even when we were naked together in the showers, so I figured even if he was gay he a cool gay (rather than the in-your-face aggressive variety I sometimes encountered in Australia.) After a spell in the spa, sweating out toxins, we returned to the lagoon, floating under the stream drifts which were blown this way and that by the relentless wind. We smeared white mud on our faces. I noticed my blistered feet began feeling better -- within the next day or two they were almost completely healed. Remarkable! We stayed right up until closing time at 9pm, as the world turned dreary and cold all around us. I love Icelandic weather which is one reason I want to come back in the winter, and see real desolation! Rodolphe and I drove back to my youth hostel in Reykjavík. It had been a great day, and I wondered how I could match it tomorrow (although the morrow did indeed prove just as memorable, as I met a future lover. But that is another story.)

Oh, I was forgetting -- there was meant to be a punchline here, or least some kind of climax! Well, the punchline is this: Rodolphe was in fact gay! And as we hit the Reykjavík city limits he made his move, and tried to grab my hand. It was touch and go there for a while, but I managed to get out of it with my dignity attached. Not as if I could bail our of the car while we drove through the lava plains, and it would have been lame just to tell him that I wasn't gay. I just handled the situation Japanese style, by not reacting at all. Hoping Rodolphe might pick up the hint. Some of the guys at the youth hostel were horrified when I told them the story later on, once I had escaped his grasp. Shortly before he dropped me off, Rodolphe informed me that he didn't have anywhere to stay for the night, and that he wanted to book something at the hostel. Thankfully the hostel was full (I dodged a bullet there!) Rodolphe said goodbye to me rather crestfallen, got into his car, and drove off looking for another inn. I never saw him again. My skin and hair smelling of sulphur, I went to bed somewhat pleased with how the day had gone... the way I figured it, it was worth taking the risk of riding with Rodolphe to see a part of Iceland I would never have been able to see. Sometimes you have to take a chance -- that's the Vagabondic way! To be honest, despite the experience in the car, I still think Rodolphe is a nice guy. Maybe I will bump into him again on future trips to Iceland -- perhaps in the sauna at the Blue Lagoon!

Regarding to Gay Iceland, I have heard it said: "Although a gay scene does exist in Reykjavík, it is very small. One good place to meet gay men is the sauna at the Vesturbæjarlaug-Vesturbaejar Swimming Pool (Hofsvallagata, IS-101 Reykjavík, phone: 354 551 5004)." If you are that way inclined, you might as well check it out. I don't go for saunas myself, but many guys swear by them...
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