I Saw a Dead Whale's Dick in Iceland, and It Changed My Life


At the information center in the tiny, picturesque town of Vik, Iceland, a young man was sitting behind the desk reading an old paperback copy of Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut.

I asked him what he thought of it. "I just started," he mumbled through a mouth half-full of sandwich. "Is there something I can help you with?"

"Yeah, I was just wondering what we should see in the area. We only have a few hours."

My wife and I had driven two hours to Vik so that we could make our way back toward our hotel at a leisurely pace, stopping at a few of the sites of Iceland's southern coast along the way. We had a rough itinerary, but it seemed like a good idea to consult with a local while we were stopped to use the bathroom.

Vik, Iceland

The young man tore a tourist map from a pad and walked me through the highlights of the area. He pointed me to a spot above the town's church where we could get the best view of Vik's handful of postcard blocks, to a nature reserve noted for beautiful ocean scenery, and to a stretch of volcanic beach known for its dangerous waves and for a towering mass of basalt pillars—where tourists go to take pictures and to be surprised by freak waves that knock them down and occasionally kill them. At this point my wife had joined us from the bathroom, and the young man pulled out his phone to show us something else at that same stretch of beach.

"If you go all the way down to the other end, there's something else right now that is pretty amazing. A humpback whale washed up a few days ago. If he's still there—it's definitely a he—you might want to go see. Here's a picture my friend sent me. So, yeah, it's definitely male."

He seemed to be suppressing his amusement as he showed us an image of his friend posing beside a whale corpse, gesturing toward its exposed member. He showed us another shot, one of the whale's eye, which had filled with fresh blood. Did we want to see a beached dead whale? It turned out the answer was "yes." I can't say why, because we didn't discuss it. We both just seemed to agree that it was something we shouldn't miss.

Driving down toward the crowded lot where tourists parked to pose with the basalt pillars, I thought I could see a big dark mass on the far end of the beach, then I lost sight of it behind a hillock, and the pillars came into view. They're fascinating to look at. Perfectly vertical six-sided columns of stone—formed when volcanic rock cools just right. They jutted up above the black sands, and it was possible to clamber up a few levels, which a number of tourists were doing.

Basalt Pillars

We stayed long enough to have our turn taking a few shots, and we marveled for a bit at the waves crashing against the steep slope of sand—high winds throwing billows of mist back from their crests. From the crowd of tourists we couldn't see any beached whale. We weren't sure how far the beach stretched, or if a high tide had already swept across the sand and pulled the humpback back into the ocean. I decided to run ahead of my wife to see if it was worth the trek.

A ribbon of smooth stones provided better resistance than the sand. They clattered under my feet as I raced along the beach. Half a mile down I saw again the dark mass I'd spotted from the car, with something white projecting from its left side. But it was distant enough that it might have been anything. I unzipped my coat and walked for a stretch to catch my breath. A handful of people were milling about closer to the dark shape. I passed a photographer heading the other way and thought about asking if she'd seen the whale, but the idea of it felt strange. Even if we were both there for the same thing, there was something shameful or sacrilege in the attraction to such a morbid spectacle or in the idea of discussing it aloud. I started running again.

Eventually I was close enough to be sure it was the whale. The white underside of one giant fin was pointing out to sea. I ran a little further—in awe of him even from a distance—before I stopped and began walking back toward my wife, waving both arms overhead in big sweeping arcs—the signal that the whale was really there. It took us a while to spot one another. I had run farther than I'd realized. Eventually she waved her arms back at me. We walked slowly toward each other for a long time before we were together again. Tire tracks from some huge vehicle had made twin troughs in the sand. We kicked along beside them, making a game out of throwing rocks.

When we reached the whale, the other people had cleared out. We were the only ones there. He was something in excess of thirty feet long. Enormous, but probably not full-grown. My wife was expecting something bigger—closer to the blue whale model that hangs from the ceiling in the Museum of Natural History. She wondered if he was an infant. I guessed he was probably a teenager.


He was lying on his side in the sand, his belly beginning to bloat with rot, spreading his accordion ribs and giving him almost the appearance of pregnancy. His only visible eye—so small in comparison to his bulk—had grown dark and hazy since the young man's friend had snapped that picture. There was no sense that a sentient creature had ever lived behind that blur. On his chin, barnacles had opened to reveal the tiny tentacles of the soft creatures inside. Deep divots, like acne scars, showed where the whale had managed to knock other barnacles loose. His fin was longer than a person is tall. His mouth hung open, and pebbles were caught in the push broom of his baleen fibers. Where his body provided shelter from the wind, the smell of death was heavy and nauseating.

The whole experience hit me harder than I was expecting. I had a more intense feeling of mortality than I've felt at any funeral. There was no mortician's makeup or flowers or a fancy box to dress up the horror as anything formal or somber. Life had abandoned this awesome, powerful creature. Had he already been sick—or dead—when he washed up, or did the beach itself kill him—drying him out and crushing his organs under his own tremendous weight?

A few days ago this dead lump had been so much more—and so much more alive—than I will ever be. He had shared his song with other whales over thousands of miles. He had swelled his mouth with enough water to fill a swimming pool, spitting out what he didn't want to eat. He had launched himself into the air and slammed back through the waves with the force of a train crash. Now he was only an object—a mass of blubber decomposing on the beach.

Whale dick

And there was his dick on the windward side, just as it had looked beside the young man's friend in that picture—fully exposed and hanging from the whale's lower belly almost to the sand. It was as thick as a man's thigh, and maybe at least four feet long. Waxen white at its base, it tapered toward a blood red point like someone had been using it to paint a fading sunset. As I watched it, the wind sent it gently swinging. There was something so grotesque and comical about the sight of it. And at the same time soothing. It was the only part of the whale that moved. A metronome for the world. Keeping the rhythm of a slow return to nature—a peace and a purpose after death.

On the walk back to the car, we passed several dead fish and birds in various states of decay along the beach. I wondered how long it would take for the whale to be stripped down to his skeleton—how many fish and birds would he feed along the way. I found myself hoping that, when I die, I won't be made-up or put in a fancy box. Nature is waiting to take my body back. I don't want to disappoint her.

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It's no secret that the restaurant scene in New York City is one of the most impressive in the world.

Whatever you could want to eat, you can find it in New York—meaning that even if you have a slightly restrictive diet, like veganism, there's plenty of options for you. Local fast-casual chains like By Chloe and Superiority Burger are making New York one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the world, but the deliciousness doesn't stop there.

Between Manhattan and Brooklyn, there's been a boom of vegan restaurants that'll satisfy any craving. Here are just a few of our favorites.

Blossom(Upper West Side + Greenwich Village)

vegan restaurant

With two locations serving both Uptown and Downtown, Blossom is a go-to for local and tourist vegans alike. They offer an elevated dining experience (and a wide-spanning takeout radius) that puts a cruelty-free spin on classic main dishes like chicken piccata, rigatoni, and grilled salmon. Complete your dinner with a fresh, fruity cocktail and tiramisu—but reservations are strongly recommended beforehand.

Jajaja (West Village + Lower East Side)

vegan Jajaja

Jajaja is the ultimate heaven for Mexican food addicts. Get your fix of south of the border staples like burritos, street tacos, and enchiladas that'll make you second guess whether or not it's actually vegan (pro tip: The nacho portion is large enough to be a meal for one person). They also have a small but mighty menu of tequila and mezcal cocktails to kick off a night of LES bar-hopping. It gets crowded here quickly, though, so try to schedule your dinner early.

Urban Vegan Kitchen(West Village)

Urban Vegan Kitchen

We get it—eating vegan can get kind of bland sometimes. But that's not an issue at Urban Vegan Kitchen, the type of restaurant that'll have you wanting to order one of everything on the menu (but we recommend the "chicken" and waffles). Co-owned by the founder of Blossom, they boast a menu that's just as edgy and exciting as their decor. Their space is large too, making it a crowd-pleasing option for a slightly larger group.

Champs Diner (Williamsburg)

Champs Diner vegan

Located near the border of hip neighborhoods Williamsburg and Bushwick, Champs is a favorite of many young Brooklynites. Their menu is full of vegan alternatives to classic diner fare like breakfast plates, cheeseburgers, and even milkshakes that taste mysteriously like the real deal, while the decor puts a quintessential Brooklyn edge on '50s digs. Who said going plant-based had to be healthy all the time, anyway?

Peacefood (Greenwich Village)

vegan Peacefood

Conveniently located just a stone's throw from Union Square—near both NYU and the New School—Peacefood is a hotspot for college students, but vegans of any age are guaranteed to enjoy their menu. They specialize in comfort food items like quiche, chicken parmesan, and chili with corn bread—all plant-based, of course. While their "chicken" tender basket is to die for, make sure to save room for dessert here, too; Peacefood's lengthy pastry menu is a dream come true.

Buddha Bodai (Chinatown)

Buddha Bodai vegan

Dim sum restaurants in Chinatown are a dime a dozen, but Buddha Bodai takes the cake for the best veggie-friendly experience in one of New York's most bustling neighborhoods. Bring your family or friends along with you to enjoy this massive menu of buns and dumplings stuffed with any type of mock meat you could want. This is also a great option for gluten-free vegans, too, as much of their menu accommodates a gluten-free diet.

Greedi Kitchen (Crown Heights)

Greedi Kitchen vegan

Crown Heights might not be the first neighborhood people think of when it comes to dining in Brooklyn, but Greedi Kitchen is making the case for delicious restaurants in the area. Inspired by its founder's many years of travel, Greedi Kitchen combines the comforting flavors of southern soul food with the added pizazz of global influences. Try one of their po'boys or the crab cake sliders. Trust us.

Screamer’s Pizzeria (Greenpoint + Crown Heights)

Screamer's Pizza vegan

We know what you're thinking: Pizza without real cheese? Call us crazy, but Screamer's does vegan pizza to perfection. If you're into classic pies like a simple margherita or pepperoni, or you want to branch out with unexpected topping combinations, Screamer's is delicious enough to impress carnivores, too (pro tip: the Greenpoint location is small and serves most pies by the slice, while the Crown Heights location is larger for sitting down).

Learning a second language is one of the coolest and most rewarding things you can do in your spare time.

However, if hopping on a one-way ticket to your country of choice isn't an option for you, it can be difficult to find an immersive experience to learn, especially past high school or college.

The next best thing is language-learning apps.

We wanted to look at the top two: DuoLingo and Rosetta Stone. Duolingo is the new kid on the block; one of the top downloaded, this free app is a favorite. Then, there's the legacy option: Rosetta Stone. For over 20 years, they've been developing their language-learning software, and their app is the most recent innovation.

They're both great options, but keep reading to figure out which one is the best for you.

Key Similarities

  • Both claim you'll expand your vocabulary
  • Both are available as an app for iOS and Android users
  • Both have a clean user interface with appealing graphics
  • Both have offline capabilities (if you pay)

Key Differences

  • DuoLingo has a popular free version along with its paid version, whereas Rosetta Stone only has a paid version
  • DuoLingo offers 35+ languages, and Rosetta Stone offers 24 languages
  • Rosetta Stone has an advanced TruAccent feature to detect and correct your accent
  • DuoLingo offers a breadth of similar vocab-recognizing features, and Rosetta Stone offers a wider variety of learning methods, like Stories

DuoLingo Overview

DuoLingo's app and its iconic owl have definitely found a place in pop culture. One of the most popular free language-learning apps, it offers 35 different languages, including Klingon, that can be learned through a series of vocabulary-matching games.

DuoLingo offers a free version and a version for $9.99 a month without ads and with offline access.

Rosetta Stone Overview

The Rosetta Stone app is a beast. There are 24 different languages to choose from, but more importantly, you get a huge variety of methods for learning. Not only are there simple games, but there are stories where you get to listen, the Seek and Speak feature, where you go on a treasure hunt to photograph images and get the translations, and the TruAccent feature, which will help you refine your accent. Whenever you speak into the app, you'll get a red/yellow/green rating on your pronunciation, so you can fine-tune it to really sound like you have a firm grasp of the language.

Rosetta Stone costs just $5.99 a month for a 24-month subscription, which gives you access to all of their 24 languages!

Final Notes

Overall, these are both excellent apps for increasing your proficiency in a new language! They both feel quite modern and have a fun experience.

When it comes to really committing words to memory and understanding them, Rosetta Stone is king.

DuoLingo definitely will help you learn new words, and the app can be addicting, but users report it as more of a game than a means to an end.

With Rosetta Stone's variety of features, you'll never get bored; there are more passive elements and more active elements to help you activate different parts of your brain, so you're learning in a more dynamic and efficient way.

The folks at Rosetta Stone are extending a special offer to our readers only: Up To 45% Off Rosetta Stone + Unlimited Languages & Free Tutoring Sessions!


So You Want to Try Workaway

Want to travel cheap, meet locals and kindred spirits, live off the land, and possibly change your life? It might be time to try Workaway.

Sitting in a house on a hill in Tuscany, Italy, watching the sun set and listening to the sound of music coming from the house in which I was staying almost rent-free, I wondered how I had gotten this lucky.

Actually, it was really all thanks to one website—Workaway.info.

Workaway Workaway

Workaway is a site that sets travelers up with hosts, who provide visitors with room and board in exchange for roughly five hours of work each weekday. The arrangement varies from host to host—some offer money, others require it—but typically, the Workaway experience is a rare bird: a largely anti-capitalist exchange.

I did four Workaways the summer I traveled in Europe, and then one at a monastery near my home in New York the summer after. Each experience, though they lasted around two weeks each, was among the most enriching times of my life—and I'd argue I learned almost as much through those experiences as I did in four years of college.

There's something extremely special about the Workaway experience, though it's certainly not for everyone.

Workaway Isn't for Everyone: What to Know Before You Go

I loved all the Workaways I went on, but the best advice I can give to anyone considering going is: Enter with an open mind. If you're someone who doesn't do well with the unexpected, if you're not willing to be flexible, if you're a picky eater or easily freaked out, then it's likely that you won't have a good experience at a Workaway.

There are exceptions to all of this. At the Workaway I stayed at in Italy, one of the travelers was suffering from stomach bloating, and the host helped cure her with a diet of miso. (I'm not saying you should go Workawaying if you're ill—this traveler's mother also came to oversee everything—but still, you never know what you'll find).

Workaway WoIsango.com

You should also probably be willing and able to actually work at your Workaway. These aren't vacations, and some hosts will be stricter and less forgiving than others regarding your work ethic. If you're someone who has no experience with difficult farm work, for example, it might not be a good idea to do a Workaway on a farm.

How to Choose a Host

The Workaway website boasts a truly overwhelming number of hosts. You can narrow your search down by location, but you can also search key terms that can help guide you in the right direction. You might search "music," for example—that's how I found the Italy location. You'll find hosts in busy cities and in the most remote mountains of India; you'll find opportunities to tutor and explore. You'll find shadiness, too, so trust your instincts.

Take time to actually read the host's entire bio before reaching out. Read all the comments, too, and if you're nervous or a first-timer, only reach out to hosts who have exclusively glowing reviews. I had the best experiences with hosts that had left extremely detailed bios—that showed me they were likely going to be dedicated hosts.

I also chose hosts whose bios gave me a good feeling, something like a spark of electricity or recognition. This instinctual method might not work for everyone, but it certainly led me in the right direction in all of my Workaway experiences. My Workaways gave me some of the best memories and deepest relationships of my life, and that was partly thanks to the fact that I chose places that were good fits for me.

For example, I chose to stay alone with a wizened academic in France. Something about his bio and descriptions resonated with me enough to trust him. (I also read some of his many thousand-page-long treatises on peace and compassion and decided that if someone could write this and be a psychopath, this wasn't a world I wanted to live in anyway). It was the right decision—and the two weeks I spent there were some of the most enlightening of my entire life.

When you reach out to a host, particularly if it's someone you really want to stay with, it's a good idea to frame your initial contact email as a cover letter of sorts—make sure you explain who you are and personalize your letter to fit each host.

Ixcanaan A Workaway painting experienceWorkaway

Travel Safely

Especially if you're traveling alone, it's always a good idea to choose a host whose page has tons of good reviews. Aside from that, a quick Google search and a scan of any social media pages related to your potential host can't hurt.

Ultimately, Workawaying requires a certain amount of trust and faith on both the host and the traveler's parts—you're either trusting someone to stay in your home or trusting a stranger to host and feed you.

But that trust, in my experience, also results in rapid and deep connections unlike anything I've experienced in the "real world." When you go and share a home with someone, you're also sharing yourself with them, and in that exchange there are the seeds of a powerful bond.

Participate Fully

Wherever you go, you'll want to open your mind and participate fully. Adjust yourself to your host's lifestyle, not the other way around, and take time to get to know your host and the others around you.

You might find that you become someone you never knew you were. As a lifelong introvert, I somehow managed to develop close relationships with many of the people I was staying with.

This might be because most people who are at Workaways are seeking something for one reason or another. In my experience, you find lots of people who are at junctures in their lives, seeking connection and meaning. With the right Workaway, you might just find it.

Workaway The Broke Backpacker - WorkawayThe Broke Backpacker