The Land of Fire and Ice: Part 2

We drove through the late afternoon and evening to the southern coast. So much of this trip was spent in the car, but it never got old. There was just so much to look at outside the window, and to talk about inside the car.

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Our hostel was situated right in front of another enormous waterfall named Skógafoss, but by the time we got there, it was pitch black out, and there wasn’t a lot of street lighting, so you couldn’t see the waterfall at all. In fact, you could barely see five feet in front of you; I had to pull out my iPhone flashlight to get from the car to the front door of the hostel. I could hear the roar of the waterfall in the distance, and it was odd that I couldn’t see it.

We ate our incredible dinner of instant ramen and salami in the kitchen of the hostel before returning to our rooms, which had been upgraded to an oh-so-fancy guesthouse. We had found a brand of Citterio’s Milano salami in the grocery stories of Iceland, and it was addictive. We started going through almost 10 packets of the stuff a day, sneakily eating our stash of salami in the backseat when the other wasn’t looking. My sodium levels had never been so high.

In the morning, we popped over to the massive Skógafoss waterfall which was, of course, just casually sitting in the backyard of this hostel and small restaurant – the only civilization for miles. Because where else do you build your affordable travel hotel? In front of a massive waterfall, which you can just…walk up to, of course. After a few Patrick glamor photoshoots, we set out along the coast towards Vík.

The expanse of land in Iceland is indescribable. I can sit here and write that the horizon stretched for miles and miles – never-ending views of dark rocks and green moss and roads – but I can’t do it justice. There’s no way to really describe how it feels to drive with the mountains and glaciers on your left, and the coast on your right, and how it all seemed both incredibly close and impossibly far, at the same time. 

You could actually see glaciers! From a distance! We would simply drive to them if we wanted, along the way (and we did). Iceland has a way of making you feel extremely small.

We stopped along the cliffs of Vík, and then to its black sand beaches and basalt columns, which we climbed like kids on a playground. I loved these beaches, but was sad that we had missed Puffin season, when the clumsy birds would topple down the hills and flop around in their bright orange and black feathers.

The water at the beach was the coldest water I’ve ever touched. We laid down on the black stones and spread our arms and legs far, making “sand angels.” We stared up at the cliffs above us, where seagulls careened overhead, and said nothing. As someone who’s incredibly uncomfortable whenever there’s any kind of lull in a conversation, I was okay with not talking in that moment.

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We stopped in the city of Vík, where Patrick had, quote: “One of the best pizzas of my life,” and insisted on returning. I had a lamb burger, because we were in the land of lamb (SHEEP EVERYWHERE). We obviously stopped by the local grocery store on our way out of town to stock up on candy and salami. The teenage cashier looked mighty judgy as I placed 10 packets of salami on the conveyer belt and tried to pay with cash (apparently, credit is king in Iceland) but UGH that salami – it was worth the disdain of local Icelanders.

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On the drive to Jökulsárlón, the famous lagoon of glacial ice, we stopped at Fjaðrárgljúfur – a stunning canyon that would have been a lot more impressive if not for the weird model photoshoot that was happening when we arrived, 30+ cameramen included. I didn’t recognize the model, but also, the world of fashion is a mystery to me, so who knows! Maybe I was chilling with someone famous on the side of a windy cliff in Iceland. All I know is that she blocked a lot of photos that I was trying to take and she was not dressed very practically, considering the chilly weather.

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Jökulsárlón? Jökulsárlón was a dream. I’m glad we arrived just after dusk. The black sand, the eerie, almost luminescent ice – it was like nothing I had ever seen. Huge chunks of glacial ice break off from the source, floating and crashing into one another in the lagoon until making their way out to sea. Massive bodies of ice slamming into each other is an incredible sound – both deafening, and hollow in the way it echoes out across the water. I was so stupidly in love with the idea of walking in between huge pieces of glacier that had washed ashore that I started hugging the mounds of ice and mumbling, “I love you,” in a way that most people don’t talk to frozen water.

The next morning, we got up and got to see Jökulsárlón in the daytime. The sunlight was blinding, reflected through the glaciers, and the wind could almost topple you over. As we took photos in front of the lagoon, a British tourist mooned the entire crowd, and did a little dance without his pants on. Unfortunately, I was too busy laughing to snag any pictures.

We kept driving. It was just endless, straight roads, through hours of moss-covered lava fields. The road would stretch out until you couldn’t see where it ended. Patrick, to his credit, did all the driving and I got to cruise shotgun in the passenger seat throughout the entire trip, which meant I got to do a lot of sight-seeing. We alternated each other’s iPods when we got sick of each other’s music. We traded stories from high school, from both of us living abroad. The mountains and lava fields and sheep after sheep continues to roll by, as I got to know this friend I had never traveled with on a never-ending international road trip.

Somehow, miraculously, we didn’t kill each other. My apprehension of traveling with someone I had never been anywhere with before, was gone. Maybe I annoyed Patrick, and I’m sure he’ll be quick to tell you I did, but never once did I tire of traveling with him. I tried to learn to squash any feelings of awkwardness and instinctively babble to fill the silence, as I usually do when first becoming friends with someone or…in any conversation in general. 

We hiked out to a random waterfall because Patrick saw a dirt road leading off the highway that “might” lead to it, taking special care not to step on the moss-covered rocks (the moss takes almost 100 years to completely regrow, and is extremely fragile). We saw a glacier where multiple European tourists had disappeared (and, you know, uh…died). We made sure not to die, as that’s something that’s very easy to do in Iceland.

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We stopped along the side of the road to pet wild horses and eventually made our way to the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where we stood under the roaring waters and got drenched. I almost slipped off the side of the path but luckily the only people who noticed was the large Spanish family that was right behind me. Through it all, I kept a careful eye on the volcano Katla, whenever she appeared on the road beside us. We had planned our trip exactly when Katla was set to erupt at any point over the course of the next two weeks, and we had to be ready to make a run for it if she did.


We were now on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. In the morning, we drove through lava fields to a location that Patrick knew only through GPS coordinates, which he had gotten from a local. The coordinates led us onto a rough F-road, through fields of lava and past an abandoned, collapsed barn, where a tiny hot pot was nestled between jagged rocks. The hot pot was only big enough for two people, with water over 100℉.

It was surreal. We were in the middle of a field of scraggly grass and lava rocks that had formed from a volcanic eruption, in our bathing suits. Outside of the water, it was around 40-45℉, with a sprinkling of rain and sun peeking out behind grey clouds, but the water was insanely warm. At some point in the two or three hours I spent there, I realized it was Monday. Somewhere, back across the Atlantic, my coworkers were starting their day at the office, while I was sitting in a hot spring in the middle of nowhere in Iceland, with rainbows arching above my head. This was, hands down, infinitely better than the Blue Lagoon. I liked this Iceland – the rugged, dirt-strewn, middle-of-nowhere-Iceland – so much more than my first impression of it at the Blue Lagoon.

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We had to make a brief pit-stop and pull over on the side of the road, because according to Iceland’s weather website that I had loaded on my phone, the winds that we were driving through were strong enough to flip a car over. If we were going to drive, we had to go at about 25 miles per hour, to reduce the risk of flipping on our side. Risking your life is just another great way to add a little zest to your next vacation!

I’m a masochist, so I insisted that we visit the Bjarnarhöfn Museum, which shows you exactly how the Icelandic delicacy called Kæstur hákarl is made. I’m using the term “delicacy” loosely. What’s hákarl, you ask? Oh, you know. Just fermented shark meat.

I don’t eat fish – it’s a big flaw of mine, which I’m working on. I recently had fish and chips and liked it, which I considered to be a huge accomplishment – I texted my parents and announced it like I had just gotten accepted into college. So please understand how difficult it was for me to actually eat the rotten flesh of a Greenland Shark.

Greenland Shark, when first caught, is brimming with ammonia, making it deadly to eat raw or cooked. The only way to safely consume it, according to some viking who figured this out thousands of years ago, is to slice up the shark (FYI: Greenland Sharks can grow up to 21 feet, weigh as much as 2,200 pounds, and live for over 150 years), and bury it underground. Rocks and sand are placed on top of the shark meat, to press all those yummy fluids out, for about 6-12 weeks as the meat ferments. Then, the shark meat is dug up and hung to dry for several months. After that, it’s chopped up into tiny cubes and offered to unsuspecting tourists with a piece of bread or shot of brennivín to wash it down.

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Anthony Bourdain called it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten. I…would have to agree. Our guide, a delightful man named Christian, gave us a great tour, explaining just how the hákarl was made, before offering us our own sample (“It’s gluten-free!” he proclaimed a little too proudly). I managed to chew and swallow half of it, before gagging at the texture of a line of grizzly cartilage, and spat out the rest. Patrick, true to form, ate two pieces just to show me up. It’s like eating an incredibly foul and chewy cheese, and although it’s no longer fatal, the ammonia levels in the meat are still high enough to make the average person gag.

The museum also had a large collection of things (a.k.a., animal and human parts) that had been found in the stomachs of the Greenland sharks that had been caught. Outside, you could stand in the shack of drying shark meat and revel in the stench. You could also pet some of the most beautiful wild horses against the most ridiculously idyllic backdrop. Iceland is unreal.

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Afterwards, we drove back along the coast, passing a few thousand more sheep, and finally made it back to Reykjavík. We treated ourselves to our third non-ramen + salami meal of the trip (and a ridiculously expensive bottle of wine) before coming back to Kex Hostel for our last night. There, we made friends with a crowd of Brits, Aussies, and obnoxious Canadians (yes, CANADIANS, not Americans, being obnoxious), and played our own version of the British television show, “Countdown,” with the magnetic letters on the wall in Kex’s common area. We stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, yelling, “Can I have a vowel, please, Carol?” in British accents, and at least one of the Australians is now my friend on Facebook and has wished me a happy birthday from thousands of miles away.

The next morning, we roamed around Reykjavík in our final hours, eating our last hot dogs and ice creams in the freezing rain. We purchased postcards for friends back home and I invested in an overpriced Icelandic wool sweater with my leftover cash (I had calculated the exchange rate math incorrectly and had accidentally taken out the equivalent of $450 from an ATM). The sweater came with its own comb, to brush down the scratchy wool, and it is now one of my favorite sweaters.

We’d eventually drive the car back towards Keflavík airport, where reality would sink in when I finally made my dreaded first peek at my work email account. When we got home later that day, the heat and humidity of Washington, D.C., would feel smothering. In the days that followed, I’d try to explain the trip to my coworkers, to my friends, to my family, but it was nearly impossible. The loneliness of it, the quiet of it, the endless hours of talking – it just seemed too big to really explain over coffee in the break room. How do you summarize all of that into just one conversation? How do you squeeze it into one blog post, even? It’s been a year now, and the details are slipping away. I wrote this like a quick itinerary summary, in a hurried race against time before I forgot too many things.

It’s impossible to tell you all of it, to remember all of it. Only my mom really listened to every single detail; my friends, my coworkers, my other family members – they all lost patience after one or two long-winded stories that just didn’t do the entire trip justice. So instead, to give them a real feel for Iceland, I’d tell them this:

 

Two nights before we returned home, we were in a hostel on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Because of the high amount of sulfuric activity in the area, the water that came out of the faucets smelled like rotten eggs. On the entire drive there, I had been wrongfully blaming the smell of the air coming from outside on Patrick’s farting. We had finally gotten to a point in the drive where teasing each other about farting was a normal, routine conversation. Little did I know, the smell would cling to my clothes and my washed hair after showering at the hostel.

I often think of this night as the last night in Iceland, even though I can clearly remember that we had another two days there afterwards. But when trying to explain what Iceland and what traveling with Patrick was like, it always comes down to this. We went to sleep in a dingy hostel that smelled like farts and rotten eggs after another meal of ramen and salami, cooked in an ever-quiet hostel. The walls of the hostel were covered in maps, and the other guests all pattered around in their socks. Before going to bed, Patrick checked the aurora forecast and the weather doppler on my phone, and set an alarm. We fell asleep to the quiet mumblings of the rooms on either side of us.

At 2 a.m., the alarm went off. We groggily pulled on our hiking boots, our many layers of fleeces and sweaters and coats. It was unbearably cold, and my eyes were burning from exhaustion. I trusted Patrick blindly, allowing him to drive us away from the silent little town we were staying in, down a highway where the streetlights disappeared. We pulled off on the side of the road, surrounded by darkness, and got out of the car. We looked up – and there they were. The Northern Lights.

I didn’t try to take any pictures, or Snapchat us shivering out in the cold. I took a lot of photos in Iceland, but it was in Iceland that I learned not to care as much about them. What was important was this, right here. Parked along the side of the highway, beside miles of darkness of Icelandic wilderness, shivering at two in the morning and craning our necks upwards. Watching that ethereal, green glow streak across the sky against a backdrop of some of the brightest stars I had ever seen. My fingers went numb and I was shaking uncontrollably from the cold. Watching the lights shimmer was surreal. We leaned against the side of the car and just looked up for hours, not saying anything. Not needing to say anything. I was finally okay with sitting in the silence.

Eventually, the aurora borealis faded, and we drove back to our hostel. We crawled into our beds, bundling under the blankets, but when I closed my eyes, I could still see that green streak across the sky, now imprinted on my eyelids.

That night will always stand out to me as “the last night in Iceland,” and as the best example of what that trip was. It’s hard to put it into words – the impulsiveness of driving out to the middle of nowhere with someone who would eventually become one of my best friends, just to look up at the night sky. The bubbling excitement of realizing you’ve finally found someone you can truly adventure with. The thrill of buying tickets to a foreign country on a whim one evening in July, and having no idea how it’d turn out. My first trip abroad in three years, after feeling trapped at home, trapped at work. Wearing no makeup for days, living in hiking boots, eating salami in the car while screaming along to middle school jams. Petting wild horses on the side of the road. Looking up at an almost unnatural light dancing across the sky, and the world feeling so big and so small at the same time.

It’s been hard to put all of it into words, and these blog posts didn’t do it justice. But when I’m trying to explain it, that night is the story I tell them. This was Iceland, I say.

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The Land of Fire and Ice: Part One

A year ago, I got on a plane to Iceland.

It was my first international trip in three years. As a self-proclaimed lover of travel, I was starting to feel more and more like a fraud. Yes, I was lucky enough to have been to over 15 countries before the age of 22, but how could I sit there and write freelance articles on the joys of travel and studying abroad, when I hadn’t been outside of the United States since 2013? Worse than that, I hadn’t even traveled within the United States (besides visiting family) since 2014. It sounds sliiiiightly dramatic, but I felt trapped. I was watching all my former classmates hop through Europe and South America. I had always had the goal of moving abroad and starting a life in another country and yet here i was, two years after graduation, and staring down the barrel of a life of no adventures. When I was offered the impulsive chance to travel abroad again, I took it.

The challenge of travel is often who we go with. I’m not afraid of solo travel, but I don’t particularly like it. I prefer to share memories and experiences with someone by my side, but I’m also all too aware that there are friends you just shouldn’t travel with. I have a handful of best friends who I love dearly, but have said to their faces: I will murder you if we get on a plane together. 

So I was a little nervous, that night after work in July, about spontaneously agreeing to travel with Patrick, who I had known for only about a year. I realized on the evening we bought our tickets that I hadn’t even done a day-trip with him, let alone a week of international travel. I was nervous about running out of things to talk about; I get notoriously uncomfortable with silence. But I had a feeling that Patrick and I would travel well together (or that I, at least, would travel well with Patrick). The second time we met, we fell easily into a conversation about where we’d been and where we’d like to go. I trust people who are always on the move – there’s a familiarity in talking to someone who also can’t sit still for very long.

We bought our tickets. Despite Patrick insisting we could just sleep in the car, we booked our hostels. We drew out a route along the island. I invested in a new pair of new hiking boots and and braced myself, knowing I’d be spending a pretty big chunk of my savings.

For years, my grandparents had been giving me money for my birthday, and every year, my grandma would ask me what I would be spending it on. “I put it in the bank, in my savings account!” I’d tell her proudly. She would sigh, somewhat disappointed. A few weeks before boarding the plane, I called my grandparents and told my grandma I would soon be leaving for Iceland on an impulsive trip that had sent my mother into a tizzy about safety and responsible spending. “I’m finally using the money you gave me,” I told her eagerly. My grandma, bedridden with her umpteenth surgery that year, laughed over the phone. “It’s about time.”

 

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Iceland was not what I expected. It was different from any kind of traveling I had ever done before, and I knew it the minute we stepped out of the doors of the airport, into the dark and drizzly morning. The sun hadn’t risen yet and my eyes were bleary. I had also overpacked. My backpacking backpack was the size of a small hobbit and way too heavy, and I was acutely aware of the fact that Patrick had somehow managed to pack for the entire week in a small, galaxy-patterned Jansport. I also immediately noticed how desolate the landscape was. Even from the dark parking lot of our rental car provider, all I could see past the lights of the tarmac were rugged rocks and flat terrain, stretching for miles. All greys and muted greens.

We drove through the rain and arrived at the Blue Lagoon parking lot. As Patrick had promised, this place was insanely touristy, but I loved it. We had reserved our tickets for the earliest slot, so we napped in the car until the doors of that hip, Nordic-style spa opened. Once I’d changed into my bathing suit in the locker room, I sprinted from the misty, 45 degree weather into the 100+ degree, sulfuric water. We sifted through the clay masks and waded around the pools in the still of the morning, quietly making fun of the couple that was definitely having not-so-subtle sex at the far end of the pool.

The Blue Lagoon is man-made – a tapped resource from underground hot springs that has expanded to include an overpriced spa, a swim-up bar, and a chic cafe. Even after a few minutes, you can feel the sulfur and clay smoothing out your skin, making your hair crunchy (and later, once dried, frizzy). People swirled around in the cloudy water, holding their GoPros and protected iPhones in front of them, very focused on getting the perfect Insta/Snapchat/Facebook Live video. I did it too (I had gotten a waterproof phone case specifically for this trip), but I couldn’t help but think how silly we all looked.

This was everything Iceland promised to be, according to Instagram: minimalist, Nordic locker room decor. Bright blue water, lava rocks. Soft clay beneath our feet. The opportunity for a quirky Facebook post letting everyone know you had made it safely across the ocean. It was the perfect way to wake up from the groggy plane ride and start our drive deeper into the island, but I’d realize just a few days later that Iceland was so much more than just a catered, albeit soothing, hot spring experience. It was its rough edges, quiet mornings, and unpaved roads that made me fall in love with it. Not what I expected, perhaps. But that made it all the better.

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Reykjavík, at first glance, was bitterly cold and grey. Its buildings have to withstand winds that whip through city streets and are strong enough to flip over cars, so most structures are cinderblocks of thick cement. After dropping our bags off at Kex Hostel, which I had specifically requested we stay in for its hipster decor and reputation for being a popular bar with both locals and travelers alike, we ventured out into the city (“kex” means cookie – the building used to be a cookie factory).

Deeper into Reykjavík’s center, the grey began to give way to colorful row houses, bursts of paintings and graffiti on building walls, and brightly-lit storefronts. There were cozy coffee shops on every corner, and local Icelandic teenagers dressed in true European fashion (crop-top black sweaters, classic Adidas sneakers, grungy leather backpacks, you know the drill) breezed by in the bone-chilling wind as if it were a balmy summer day.

Strolling through the world’s northernmost capital city, we visited the Hallgrímskirkja, the tall, imposing Lutheran church at the top of a hill, which looks down on the city center and definitely belongs on the set of a Lord of the Rings movie as a fortress of some Elfin king. I dragged Patrick to the Settlement Exhibition and Museum to learn about Vikings – they actually have the basic foundational structure of a Viking settlement buried below the city street, which you can walk around. I’m a sucker for history exhibits, and I loved this (as well as learning how to write my name in Old Norse).

We braved the rain and walked to the waterfront, where there was a hot dog stand I had researched, and now preach the gospel of to everyone who is planning to go to Iceland: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. It was a tiny, red and white stand with an intimidatingly grumpy man at the window, who assembled the “hot dog with everything” with practiced disdain. 

Everyone spoke English in Iceland, which made me uncomfortable. It felt like I was cheating, or not trying very hard at getting to know the local culture. But when the man slapping your hot dog together does not look like he appreciates dilly-dallying, you ordered in English, and you ordered fast. A hot dog with everything was the easiest thing to order, and the most traditional route: a mostly-lamb-filled-dog with raw white onions, crispy fried onions, ketchup, a sweet, brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade. On a bitterly cold afternoon in September, it was the best thing I had eaten all year.

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We walked around for a few more hours before returning to Kex Hostel and settling into some funky, reclaimed wood stools beside the bar. The entire bar and check-in desk section of the hostel looks like your favorite hipster cocktail hangout, combined with the library of an 80 year-old National Geographic explorer. Copper-wire lightbulbs hang throughout the room, making everyone look a lot more attractive than they actually are (still trying to figure out how to carry one of those lightbulbs with me wherever I go).

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The people at the bar were friendly, and from all over the world. Through the chatter and moody Nordic pop music, we shared a few beers and some incredible chicken wings rolled Korean fish sauce. As a head’s up: alcohol is insanely expensive in Iceland. This is possibly because the government controls the pricing and times in which you can purchase alcohol in an attempt to curb what could surely turn into a nation-wide alcoholism problem (think about the endlessly dark, long, and cold winters they face). Those few beers we had were one of only two times we drank on the entire trip.

Kex’s bar was incredibly cozy, bustling, and charming. It was hard to leave, but we had an early morning the next day, and we eventually headed upstairs. I had a mortifying moment in which I realized I would have to take a shower in a group shower room with a lot of other naked ladies (thanks for your completely different standards of privacy, Europe!) and had conveniently forgotten my towel in the car, before climbing into my top bunk in our 6-person dorm room. Patrick claims I snored throughout the night, but I’m pretty sure he was confusing me with the guy sleeping in the bottom bunk.

The next morning we were up at 6 a.m., the sky still cloudy and (of course) rainy. It would be the first of many quiet mornings in Iceland; it seemed like it took a while for the country to wake up. Or maybe this was just Iceland – sparsely-populated, empty at sunrise except for a few dock workers setting off to work. 

From here, we would start our journey venturing out around the Golden Circle, then down along the southern coast to Vík. From there, we would backtrack past Reykjavík again, to the west coast, where we’d travel along the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It wasn’t the most logical route, but there were certain things that the two of us had insisted on seeing, and we didn’t have time to do the whole Ring Road.

We headed out into Þingvellir National Park, a rift between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. We drove through miles of green and brown valley, trying to squint through the deluge of rain to imagine that somewhere, out there, was once the meeting place of the world’s oldest parliament in the world. Where viking chieftains and their families would come together, once a year, to discuss the laws of the land, unknowingly making history.

We went onto the geysers at Haukadalur, where the two most famous ones (Geysir and Strokkur) still bubble. Strokkur is the one you come for – it erupts every ten minutes, in a building, ominous explosion of turquoise, scalding hot water. The signs outside of this geyser area shows that Iceland has seen it all, when it comes to dumb tourists: “Remember that the water is 80-90℃ (176-194℉), it will burn badly. Don’t test the temperature of the water with your hands, it will burn. The nearest hospital is 62 km away.”

Teenagers are the ones that tend to stand the closest to the splash zone, but we stayed a…relatively safe distance away (sorry Mom). The entire area reeked of rotten eggs, so there wasn’t a huge incentive to get even closer to the smell. As you walked back to the car, you could look down and see steam rising from the ground in the little rivulets that snuck into the walkway. Further down the trail, a tourist who thought it would be fun to stick their foot in a small puddle walked away smelling like burnt rubber.

We stopped at the gas station down the road and took a power nap (we would take a lot of these) before popping into the store and discovering a true, cultural gift: Ranch Doritos, a.k.a., “Cool American Flavour.” Obviously, we bought three bags.

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Iceland is a land of waterfalls. There are waterfalls…and then there are waterfalls like Gullfoss, which was – to describe it accurately – HUGE. The power of such a waterfall, and getting to stand so close to it, was incredible. Also, supposedly some woman named Sigríður Tómasdóttir threatened to throw herself off the waterfall’s edge in protest unless the government of Iceland protected the waterfall from being used for electricity and financial gain. Apparently, this tactic worked, because the waterfall is now preserved for thousands of tourists to gawk at every year in peace.

What’s better than a giant waterfall? How about a giant crater of red clay that was formerly a volcano, and is now filled with a turquoise lake? One of my favorite parts of Iceland was the apparent disregard for tourist safety. It is so easy to die in Iceland. If you’re stupid or vaguely apathetic towards your own mortality, it’s really easy to just…accidentally die. In the U.S., we’re all terrified of getting sued, so we put up huge signs and guardrails and fences to keep people from throwing themselves down the side of a mountain, but Iceland just assumes that you won’t be that dumb. We sat right at the edge of the Kerið volcanic crater and I loved the freedom of it. Everywhere you went, even the touristy destinations, made you feel like you were exploring something for the first time.

Driving an SUV with four-wheel-drive as a rental car was crucial to getting around Iceland. Not only are the regular roads and weather kind of rough, but without that 4WD you can’t go on F-roads, which are essentially just slightly-cleared strips of gravel. Patrick would randomly crank the wheel and take us down one of these roads, the tires bumping and lunging forward over every pot-hole and boulder. Sometimes, these detours would lead us to dead-ends (like the one time we got stuck trying to cross a river) and other times it would take us to places like Háifoss.

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Háifoss was the first time I saw Patrick giddy. We had to dodge an absurd amount of sheep on the drive there, and even had to wait a solid 10 minutes for a crowd of them to move out of the road, since they were apparently unperturbed by the presence of a large car coming at them. We then hiked out onto the edge of the cliff, across from waterfalls that plunged down 400 feet. Háifoss is the third-highest waterfall in Iceland, but it would end up being my favorite just for its sheer dramatics (and its lack of other tourists). 

Patrick bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, eyes locked on the water and cackling almost manically. I couldn’t blame him.  “This is all ours!” he kept yelling. There was nothing for miles. We hadn’t seen another human or car pass by us in hours. And I suddenly realized how amazing it was – to just be truly and utterly alone, in the middle of nowhere in another country, surrounded by rocks and sheep and volcanoes. It was vaguely terrifying. And I loved it.

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Part two coming soon.