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.

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