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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.