Thursday, March 27, 2014

Icelandic notes

Much of Iceland's image abroad is defined by it's geothermal and volcanic character. So it's no surprise that the country's tourism image relies heavily on it's appeal to witness and enjoy natural hot springs.
Such is this appeal, that there are very few countries in the world which can measure themselves in the same league. Possibly New Zealand, Japan or Costa Rica.

Recently I was in the opportunity to spend a week in Iceland (more entries to follow) and had the opportunity to put the experience of Icelandic soaking into a bigger picture.

Feeding the machine
Iceland actually encourages using wild natural springs as prime spots for a quintessential Icelandic experience. 
For instance the public-private partnership Inspired by Iceland tourism campaign has a video (below) which contains a few sections celebrating Iceland's geothermal origin's. This includes one where the soaking enthusiasts enjoy the open air soak al fresco! Official sanctioned skinny dipping! That's something you'll hardly see elsewhere on our planet ... Note that not everyone in Iceland is happy with this.

Another iconic image of Iceland is conjured up by the near-dreamlike atmosphere surrounding the Blue Lagoon hot spring. 
Originally an overflow pool of a geothermal power project, locals started using the pool as an easily accesible hot spring and free as well. However after a period of local use, in 1999 the company operating the place then decided to give it a make over and charge  for the  privilege (source). Out with the locals in with the tourists. At 35€ a head one can imagine that most locals and even many a more adventurous tourist would seek soaking solace elsewhere. 

Nowadays it seems that a visit to Iceland is incomplete without a visit to the Blue Lagoon; such that Blue Lagoon has become the most popular tourist attraction in the country. If only for the photo-op, a selfie on instagram? So much is their appeal that National Geographic have given it the accolade Wonders of the World!

'蓝湖上泡温泉.水温四十度,天空飘着雪emojiemojiemojiemoji #iceland #bluelagoon #hotspring'
From the instagram page of  kelly_chen224

And the lures of Blue Lagoon made perfect by a well-oiled PR machine are persuading more and more tourists to seek more lust for soaking opportunities in Iceland, especially the wilder the better.

And why not? There are supposed to be 700-800 hot springs (source, [1])!

Adding to the heightened lures are the increased awareness through internet of available soaks, the improvement in access (both in road conditions and vehicles themselves) and the use of GPS, one can easily understand that the sought-after wild Icelandic soaks are seeing ever increasing soaker traffic.

Questions could be raised about the increasingly seeking out of (wild) hot springs. 
With many of these more remoter springs being unmanaged, are they not open to user abuse such that successor soakers are left in the lurch? 
And if so, what needs to be done to enhance self-regulation? Or should public / private control be the answer?

In my pre-travel reading fun on Iceland, I was drawn to this short article on Total Iceland. It states:
'These days, in line with huge and growing numbers of tourists to Iceland, the natural order of things is beginning to break down. Sadly, even our tremendously lovely natural hot springs widely found are no exception.
Turns out, according to a recent study, that amount of contamination in three popular thermal springs in the country is quite high. Perhaps you should stop reading if a hot spring in Iceland is on your agenda. Seems the Landmannalaugar hot springs, Lysuholl hot spring and Hveravellir hot springs are not only crowded by tourists. Considerable faecal contamination was found in all three places and especially where water flow was low'.
Further research lead to the possible source of this information. In the highly informative scientific article the authors [2] amongst others state:
'In this study, we conducted a microbiological analysis on three popular but different natural pools in Iceland, located at Lýsuhóll, Hveravellir and Landmannalaugar. Total bacterial counts were performed ...
The results indicate higher fecal contamination in the geothermal pools where the geothermal water flow was low and bathing guest count was high during the day.
Our findings suggest that the quality of bathing water depends on the interaction of guest count, pool size, flow rate and the hygiene of pool guests. The hygiene part is important because guests carry dirt on their skin and swimwear to the water (e.g., residues from urine and feces, skin particles, etc.). It is therefore important that bathers wash thoroughly before entering the pools'.
Hmmm, so it seems that visitors may be part of the problem.

And thus, excessive PR promoting hot spring use, may well be enhancing unhygienic situations. 

The article also notes that soaking on a busy summer day at the Hveravellir hot spring may well be at the limits of what could be described as hygienic as there is a mismatch between number of visitors and flow rates of the hot springs themselves.

I took the opportunity to contact one of the authors. Ms. Þórólfsdóttir emphasized that any kind of regulation is difficult, as we are talking about nature. However it must be stressed that the amounts found all are within official limits, be they Icelandic, European or from the U.S.A.

Keeping it so, the only solution are soakers themselves: maintaining personal hygiene and thorough showering beforehand.

However current fashion amongst tourists and general public seems to be in contradiction to this: witness the wearing of swim / beach wear all day.

Bathers disrobing pre-Klambragil hot stream: already dressed (sic) for soaking success?

Icelanders themselves though, have at least at public baths adopted heavy washing as an antidote. 

During my Icelandic sojourn I both visited the Laugardalslaug and Sundhöll Reykjavíkur swimming pools in Reykjavik. Though both have hot pools besides swim bassins I am not sure whether or not these are actually natural. The Icelandic Times (issue 14, 2012) notes on Laugardalslaug:
'The water in Reykjavik’s swimming pools is of the highest quality. It comes from drill holes in three different areas, in and near Reykjavik. The quality of the water is inspected four times a day by the pool staff and four times a year by independent health and safety inspectors. The clean natural geothermal water and regular inspection ensures the highest water quality possible'.
Or partially, this source refers to water being natural, but heated at Laugardalslaug. I did notice that the main swimming bassins at both pools did have chlorine.

Anyway my point. 
It's especially the pre- and post-swim showering in Iceland that differs from what is common elsewhere. Whether it's just a custom still in a time-warp or whether it's consciously meant to use social / peer pressure to enforce hygiene, gang-style showering naked is the way to go in Iceland's swimming pools. It's even mentioned (see link to the picture below) that there are supervisors required to enforce the policy, but it does seem that one can get away with the naked part somehow. Note that the showering sections are gender divided so no problems there.

'[The illustration above is from the hardback version of my Little Book of the Icelanders and is by Megan Herbert.]'

Another point in favour of Reykjaviks swimming pools, is that swim and water management in general is done efficiently; liked the use of small centrifuges so that swim wear can be taken back home dry!

So is this custom showering the way to go? It certainly helps keeping swim waters less polluted thus cutting back on the need for chlorine.

Despite this, tourists beg to differ.

There's many a danger to be had when visiting Iceland as a tourist, however for most the fact that washing naked in gender segregated facilities is the source of anticipated angst. Is that the price to pay for our lack of personal hygiene? But as tourists, we want everything exactly as back home. 

For many it's a step too far. Instead of embracing differing cultures and experiences, many a visitor to f.i. Blue Lagoon lament the experience, just because of the shower angst.

Read this previous posting on this blog which describes the showering part as 
But there's much more. 

For instance, this blog entry on theworldisabook. It mentions in the article itself 'gross' and being '[not] overly traumatized' while comments in response expand the issue to for instance: 
'[the experience being] beyond intimidating'.
Or adventurouskate:
'Just the fact that you have to get naked is enough to scare me away!
Damn it! I didn’t know that you have to shower naked before going into any of the thermal pools in Iceland! Now I’ll think twice before going! That’s such a bummer :( 
... still trying to get over the naked bit!!'
Or ummmnowwhat:
'Becca and I had such angst about this entire process, I can't even begin to tell you how stressed we were going in'.
This list can go on and on, though it must be stated that there are also reactions to the contrary.

Even Lonely Planet [3] joins the throes of angst-drivers:
'Three warnings: the Blue Lagoon requires the same thorough naked prepool showering that applies in all Icelandic swimming pools, ... '.
Witnessing this, why then the showering requirement? The answer from Blue Lagoon:
'We kindly request that guests wash all parts of the body thoroughly, without a bathing suit. We do so in order to maintain the highest standards of hygiene and cleanliness in the lagoon'.
Even though the Blue Lagoon itself notes:
'Regular sampling shows that “common” bacteria do not thrive in this ecosystem, thus additional cleansers such as chlorine are not needed. 
This actually means that Blue Lagoon is a natural ecosystem and we do not need to use any cleansers to keep it clean. The ecosystem maintains itself and is an environment where foreign bacteria can’t live'.
Hmmm, is this the benefit of doubt? Or common sense?

I'm still surprised at soakers who deny the fact that they may well be the source of contamination.

The  Total Iceland of January 2012 laments the disappearing of more natural bathing due to the influx of tourists and their need for prudishness.
'Anyone visiting Iceland ten years ago could have enjoyed many Icelandic steam baths and geothermally heated pools and lakes without difficulty in their birthday suit. Not any more.
It seems the age old custom of bathing and enjoying a swim in anything other than your bare skin has in just ten years given way to horrible looking Speedo´s and various forms of designer clothing.
You can no longer bathe naked anywhere without difficulty; loud screams from Japanese tourists and constant pointing and whispering among people from the United States. And some fancy places as the very expensive Blue Lagoon or Fontana steam baths in Laugarvatn explicitly forbid any kind of nudity.
This is a shame indeed and entirely the fault of the growing number of foreign tourists making demands about civility'.
It's in common with other stories I have heard on f.i. Seljavallalaug where skinny dippers are becoming aware that their peace is to be disturbed by tourists. Source:
'Although it’s tempting to think you’ll have it all to yourself, keep your swimsuit close to the edge if you decide to skinny dip: we were surprised first by a honeymooning couple, and next by an Italian tour bus'.
'The pool is called Seljavallalaug and was never maintained. A small sign in Icelandic posted on the side of the building tells when it was built, who the first person was the swim there, and to please clean up after yourself and no dogs. Even when it wasn't full of black ash, it would often have algae growing on the edges. On the day we visited, algae was indeed in full bloom on the remaining wall, but the water was hot and inviting, and I stripped down and plunged in. I had expected the water to be very shallow, but it was actually fairly generous. Standing up in the deepest part, the water came to my waist. A gentle slope of ash under the water made a decent beach and lean against. When it was stirred up, the visibility dropped to almost zero, and it was a similar experience to the Blue Lagoon, being able to vanish just an inch below the surface.
Michal joined me in the pool only a minute after, and Katka eventually overcame shyness in favor of a luxurious soak, and soon we were all marveling at our incredible luck to be in such a place. Katka pointed out that we would remember this for the rest of our lives, and I was very glad she said that because she was right'.
To Icelanders the whole part comes naturally. Guide to Iceland:
'If you’ve been to Iceland or read any of the other blogs on this website you may have seen that one of the things you need to do to fit in with the nation is to get naked in the showers before you go to a swimming pool. And if you go to a hot pool/river/pond somewhere in the middle of the countryside with no-one else around – it makes perfect sense just to wear your Adam’s clothes (or Eve’s). I remember when I was growing up and I’d go with my family to pick berries in the autumn and if it was a sunny day and no-one around my mum would take her top off to get some tan whilst picking berries. And as a teenager going on summer cabin trips there are always going to be some people that strip all their clothes and run naked in the snow or into a freezing cold lake before warming up in a jacuzzi
So, bottomline is: Nudity is normal and very acceptable in Iceland'.
So there.

So what can wild soakers do in Iceland? 

At more visited places, if authorities could possibly install showers and pray that 1. visitors take a shower first and 
2. that they take the full monty routine ... 

Less visited places might have a bucket at hand: visitors can scoop water out of the source itself and shower d.i.y. pre-soak. 

What can you do? 
  • Take note of the above.  
  • Add pre-showering as a routine to soaking where possible.  
  • Maybe not wear swimming clothes all day, after-all even changing al-fresco, nobody has ever died due to shame ... 
  • Or simply make use of the right to skinny dip ...

Expanding on the above, should what is being experienced in Iceland be extrapolated to other countries? Certainly f.i. Japan has created it's own answers towards bathing hygiene in hot springs, see the many cleansing rules regarding onsen use. 
In the U.S. public hot springs are often self-governed through volunteer groups. here there's really little control / social enforcement, after all it's the land of the free. But aren't then the US soaks subject to the same possible hygiene effects?

But what about Europe? Is there such a lack of wild soaks that hygiene is the least of the concerns?

Well, it's certainly a subject which requires more thinking.

[1] Hróarsson B., Jónsson S.S. (1991)  Hot Springs in Iceland. Mál og menning; Reykjavík, Iceland: 1991. in Icelandic.
[2] Thorolfsdottir, B.O.T. & V.T. Marteinsson (2013) Microbiological Analysis in Three Diverse Natural Geothermal Bathing Pools in Iceland. International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health: Mar 2013; 10(3): 1085–1099. Published online 
[3] Presser, B., C. Bain & F. Parnell (2013) Lonely Planet Iceland Lonely Planet, Melbourne, Australia.

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