Kaffitar and Kids

A church in Iceland invited our church to come help them build a teen area in their main sanctuary. So a team of twelve traveled to Iceland bringing the lithium batteries for our power tools as carry-ons. The people in this church were not in need of food or clothing – just man (and woman) power.

We stayed in converted barracks from the airbase

We stayed in converted barracks from the airbase

Although we’d come to work, (more on that later), we had an opportunity to experience the island. An air-force base was constructed in Iceland around the time of World War II to protect the island’s neutrality – which really seems like a better way of ensuring Icelandic “neutrality” favored American and British interests. In 2006, the US vacated the base, turning it over to Iceland’s defense team. It’s now mostly abandoned except for a few barracks that have been turned into low-income housing or the “hotel” at which we stayed.

The vegetation in Iceland is short. You could see for miles because there were no trees, no shrubs, really nothing taller than spongy turf stretching to the horizon. At the end of the trip, we took the Golden Circle bus tour. Within eight hours we rode Icelandic horses, watched the Stokkur geyser, and walked over the Gulfoss waterfall. On the way, we noticed a batch of tall pine trees. After a week of seeing no vegetation reaching higher than our ankles, the tall trees dividing the horizon was jarring. Our tour guide explained that the trees were implants from immigrants who missed the pine trees of their native countries. The trees seemed to thrive in their little patches of like-minded trees, but there was an oddity to it, an out-of-place-ness. The trees seemed to me a little like the air force base. Who introduced this foreign presence? At least the trees stayed and made the place home.

A latte at Stokkur Geysir

A latte at Stokkur Geysir

The coffee was good. Even the mass produced Kaffitar had a nice, full flavor. And the latte at a beautiful café near the Stokkur was almost as memorable as the stark beauty of Iceland’s countryside. But I purposefully speed through these encounters. You can find better descriptions and pictures on the internet.

The PBS travel-guide Rick Steves gave a talk on Travel as a Political Act in which he points out that travel goes beyond mere tourism when we take time to get know the people of the places we visit. We, in turn, are changed and return home as better citizens of our home country, and better citizens of the world. This trip to Iceland was no different. Yes, I thrilled walking along Gulfoss. I felt like a character from Lord of the Rings riding all huddled up on amazingly furry, hobbit horses. I enjoyed the coffee and driving through the colorful town of Reykjavik. But that is not what changed me.

There's horse in these breakfast meats

There’s horse in these breakfast meats

The church we’d come to help was comprised predominantly of kids. Teens brought their little brothers and sisters to hang out every afternoon. It was a place they could go if their parents were out or working, serving as a sort of home away from home. They were, to a kid, friendly to us, telling us the best lamb hot dog spots in town, bringing “real” licorice for us to try, explaining how only rich people eat steak – everyone else eats fish fresh from the lake or ocean. (They also eat horse. I ate horse by mistake – I thought it was just really strong bologna).

There's horse in this picture too - so fluffy!

There’s horse in this picture too – so fluffy!

There was a thirteen-year-old boy there whose dad was an American pilot – who now lived in America. His English had a distinct American accent. The other kids expressed their jealousy that he got to visit America for a few months each summer. My guess is that the boy would have traded his American summers for a dad who lived nearby – or even on the same continent.

Jakob was the first to greet us. This fifteen-year-old sported a terrific blonde Mohawk and introduced himself as “Dr. Awesome.” Then there was Petra, with her shy smile, who told me she plans to be a teacher. There was Svandis, whose mom was a bride purchased from Nigeria; she Stemningsbilder fra Reykjavik. wants to be a fashion designer. There was Bjarndis; Svandis’s spunky little sister who’s aiming to play soccer in the Women’s World Cup.

We Americans came focused on the building project. We had our power tools and list of objectives and, the first four days, worked late into the night to accomplish them and more. The kids sat, and watched, and helped where they could. Eventually we learned though. We started taking breaks in the afternoon to play Uno or shoot pool or race around breathless in “Viking Dodge-ball” (their term, not ours – and honestly, they improved our version of Dodge-ball by leaps and bounds).Kid in iceland

Yes, we were able to add a second story inside their main sanctuary, complete with stairs and drywall. Yes, we saw fascinating wonders in Iceland, geysers, glimpses of the Northern Lights, thermally heated water, glaciers, Icelandic horses, vast fields of snow (I’m from Tucson, Arizona, water and snow in any quantity amazes me). In the mostly abandoned air force base, we saw ways in which a power imbalance can introduce foreign structures in a culture that didn’t ask for it, but now has to deal with the marks that are left. In the pine trees, we saw imported culture trying to be inconspicuous. And in Viking Dodge-ball, we also saw how cultures can meld and produce an improved version of things. But mostly, I remember the stories of these kids – their backgrounds and dreams. And I was reminded that, at home and abroad, “getting the job done” must never replace “getting to know people.”


Steves, R. (2011 ) Travel as a Political Act. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXL3IrlslSs


7 thoughts on “Kaffitar and Kids

  1. Vanesssa,
    This sounds like an amazing experience and I agree with you about learning about the people and building relationships there. Thank you for sharing such an experience that must have had a huge impact on you. Wonderful!


  2. Vanessa,

    What a great adventure! I think your willingness to hop on a plane to help out an organization like that is incredible. It really shrinks the world to go across borders in order to help other human beings. This is an excellent example of the travel writing we have been studying.



  3. Hello Vanessa!

    First of all, I am so jealous you went to Iceland; it’s on my bucket list!

    You wrote, ” In 2006, the US vacated the base, turning it over to Iceland’s defense team. It’s now mostly abandoned except for a few barracks that have been turned into low-income housing or the “hotel” at which we stayed.” I love your storytelling here. The history of any one place always should be part of a traveler’s experience, and it’s equally important to share that history as a travel writer. Nicely done.

    Also, your conclusion was warming. You wrote, “But mostly, I remember the stories of these kids – their backgrounds and dreams. And I was reminded that, at home and abroad, ‘getting the job done’ must never replace “getting to know people.'” These words left me with goose bumps, and made me want to read your blog AGAIN.

    The inclusion of images is perfect, and it really helps with the overall development. Nicely chosen.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Denise 🙂


  4. What a great experience. Your blog reminded me so much of the comment made by Rick Steves about carbonating your travel. People are the carbonation. They give it life. I think this was true to your story. The act of service almost became secondary to the children and their stories. The kids brought life to your work and power to your blog.

    I enjoyed how you tied in many cultural aspects of Iceland, such as food, animals, scenery, even coffee. I could visualize your adventures and the area itself. So beautiful.

    I appreciated your political points of view as well. Your comment, ” In the mostly abandoned air force base, we saw ways in which a power imbalance can introduce foreign structures in a culture that didn’t ask for it, but now has to deal with the marks that are left,” said a lot without having to lecture your reader. The pine trees was another subtle comment. Again, your focus stayed on the people instead of a tangent about politics and invasion. This was a great technique.

    I feel that you stuck with the topics for the week. The way that you incorporated the ideas was tactful and smooth. I hope to continue to follow your blog after this class is complete. Your writing has been an example to me, and I want to see where you go from here. Good luck in all that you do, and please keep blogging!


  5. Hi Vanessa,
    I have always wanted to go to Iceland, I am just so curious as to the culture. It saddens me to see that Americans have disturbed so many cultures with out a second thought. It is wonderful that you were able to engage and learn through the children, they have so much to teach us.


  6. I loved this post! I also really really want to ride a hobit pony now, and was fascinated by the little girl who’s mom was “purchased as a bride” was that from Nigeria? I mean, wow there is a story there! I really like how you wove the idea of getting to know the kids into your post so that it felt very organic and kind of like being on the trip with you! My only suggestions would be, as with everyone, I LOVED your pictures (the coffee was gorgeous! and the pony!) but I would have liked to see you and your friends there as well in the pictures. Also, I understand that you were making a point by not lingering on the tourist attractions, but I think it would still be OK to link out to them rather than just telling us we can find pic on line, that way they would not steal the focus, but we as readers still can check them out if we want to. Fun post. I hope you keep writing!


  7. Vanessa,
    Wonderful story and great pictures. Your last statement is especially powerful. It is easy to lose sight of the importance of getting to know people and forging connections. We often let the end goal get in the way. Thanks for sharing!


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