Travel Connections: The Weird & Wonderful Westmann Islands

One of the things I soon learned after travelling on my own for the first time was how small the world is. One can make so many random or unlikely connections between home and the new country. As the number of coincidences increases, it becomes difficult to believe fate can’t exist. The place where these ideas hit home most was in Iceland, when I visited the Westmann Islands (Vestmannaeyjar).

The majority of these 15 little islands clustered just off the south coast of the main land were formed by volcanoes under the water around 11,000 years ago, with the biggest and only inhabited one, Heimaey, previously being the home of Keiko: the famous orca whale from the ‘Free Willy’ films. With many hours of my childhood spent wishing I was Jesse swimming with this orca whale (until I realised with immense disappointment years later that those scenes had actually used an animatronic one),  I knew not going wouldn’t be right. Heimaey is also famous for the immensely destructive eruption of 1973 that smothered a third of the town in lava. Eldfell, or ‘Mountain of Fire’, was the volcanic memento that resulted, and I wanted to hike it.

I was spending a second night in Skógar before heading to the islands. The American ladies from the night before were no longer around, and I felt relieved by the prospect of no more snoring. Instead I was joined by what looked like three generations of a Chinese family – the grandparents, parents and a young girl who watched me re-fill my backpack curiously, hiding behind her hair shyly when I smiled at her. She must have only been about eight, and the experience so new and strange. I’ve never been to China, yet I knew this country’s landscape was the complete opposite of what she would be used to, with the Northern European features of the people seeming so alien. I felt a little awkward as I brushed my hair before bed, feeling their eyes on me. Catching the grandmother’s eye in the mirror, she smiled at me fondly. Then she burped. I immediately stopped what I was doing in surprise,  wondering whether I should laugh light-heartedly to prevent any potential awkwardness. But the lady didn’t seem to have noticed, instead just looking around the room in a non-fussed manner. Then she did it again…and again a few minutes later. Suddenly snoring didn’t seem so bad…

The day ahead would involve a lot of connections. To get to Vestmannaeyjar, one needs to take a local bus from Hvolsvöllur to Landeyjahöfn, and then catch a ferry from the Herjólfur ferry terminal. By buying a ‘Beautiful South’ bus passport, you can easily jump on one of the early Reykjavik Excursions buses heading through Skógar to Hvolsvöllur. The Chinese family nodded and smiled at me as I called a ‘goodbye’ to them the next morning before leaving the hostel to catch one. The door of the bus opened and with a wobbly jump off the bottom step, who should appear but ‘Timmy’, the driver from two day’s before! I watched admirably as he proceeded to ask two good-looking girls where they were from, only to raise his eyebrows at them cheekily and remark with a goofy grin: “Italy..? Bonjourno!” We took a slight detour to go pick up some passengers from a bus that had picked up a fault, and began making our way over a narrow gravel road riddled with potholes that eventually takes one to Pórsmörk. At one point we had to turn around, and the coach was pretty big. Getting off the bus to assess how much space he had, poor Timmy looked nervous. His funny comments in the microphone to the passengers stopped as his attention was focussed completely on the task at hand. I willed him on silently. But he made it without causing any damage, turning round in his seat afterwards to flash the Italian girls a flirty nod.

Hvolsvöllur is a handy connection town as it has a bank and a supermarket where you can stock up on supplies. Other than that, there really isn’t anything to do. With the clouds leaking open again after managing to hold themselves in yesterday, I went to sit inside the petrol station for the remaining hour long wait. 10 minutes later the door opened and the room became a vacuum of jabbering Spanish. I looked up to see a flurry of white and blue infiltrate the room, and a group of about 12 young men moped along the aisles, looking for chocolate and magazines and calling across to each other loudly.  Their presence caused quite a stir, with old ladies gazing at them like children admiring gifts under a Christmas tree.  Once they’d stocked up on sufficient supplies the men came over to the seating area and pulled up chairs around me, to the extent that I was effectively surrounded. An elderly lady eventually came over to ask what they were up to. “We play football,” one replied simply, as he slouched in a chair leafing lazily through a magazine. She continued to look at him, nodding absent-mindedly with a dazed smile of admiration on her face. I kept my head down reading as they chatted boisterously around me. They didn’t seem to have noticed me, and I felt a bit like the plain, quiet kid in American films who never gets picked for the baseball team. Then my bus arrived and I stood up to put my backpack on. Suddenly the footballers stopped their incessant rambling and turned to look at me with perplexed intrigue, as if they’d just spotted me for the first time. Hoisting a heavy rucksack onto your back is never an attractive motion, and I felt my cheeks go bright red as they continued to stare at me and my backpack with baffled faces. ‘Thank God I’m never seeing them again!’ I thought as I hurried through the door feeling like a 12 year old girl.

Whilst the drivers of Reykjavik Excursions coaches speak excellent English, don’t expect the same on local buses. My incoherent mumbling of Icelandic received a bemused look in response and a ticket with lots of figures on it that I didn’t understand. The journey to Landeyjahöfn takes 30 minutes. Raindrops pattered against the window pane. I paid 2520ISK for a return ticket at the terminal and found a seat in the waiting area. Five minutes later, impatient Spanish chatter filled the air again as the flurry of blue and white reappeared. Ah crap. The footballers were obviously heading to Vestmannayejar too. But I couldn’t understand why – it seemed like the most unlikely place for a bunch of young men from the Mediterranean to visit. This time however they were joined by one or two blond-haired players who I assumed were Icelanders, and one of them was very good-looking, with some of the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. Not a great day to be wearing tracksuit bottoms and no mascara. A few minutes later Eye Candy got up to go to the bathroom, and I watched him go with dreamy eyes. As I lowered them I caught the eyes of a woman who was instantly recognisable – it was the mother from the Chinese family in my dorm. I involuntarily grinned and waved at her, as she patted the arm of her mother eagerly. Upon seeing me the grandmother’s eyes lit up and she greeted me with a delighted smile…followed by a burp.

But it was a touching moment all the same – I felt like I’d made some sort of connection with a bunch of strangers, without having even spoken more than a few words to them. We were simply united in that moment by the shared familiarity of the other. And it was a nice feeling; one that I’m not convinced could be acquired as strongly if it happened with a stranger of the same nationality in one’s home country.

The ferry crossing to Vestmannaeyjar takes 40 minutes. Wrap up warm if you decide to go outside! Rain whipped at my cheeks like ropes flailing wildly from a wicked sky, leaving a sting as I gazed over the side of the boat at the roaring waves below. The blue and white swarm of Spanish wasps transcended around me again, buzzing away in sulky tones as they shivered in their tracksuits, glaring at the sky above and wondering how they’d diverted so off-course to end up in this climate. Occasionally one or two of them would look at me with the same baffled facial expression, as if I had two heads. I finally broke the ice by offering to take a photo of them when someone got their camera out. “What are you doing on the Island?” I asked one, who nudged his friend and nodded at me, muttering “English”. His friend proceeded to tell me that they were playing football. Shocker! “But why here?” I asked him, wondering what point there was in flying to Iceland for a training camp. He shrugged and said simply, “There’s a game.” I looked at him, still not understanding. Then he asked if I supported a team, and following the male contingent in my family I replied with “Manchester United.” He smiled and said “Do you know David James?” I was pretty sure he had never played for this team, and rolled my eyes slightly as I said yes. Then he asked why I myself was going to the islands and I told him I was travelling. “But why here?” he asked with a frown. I shrugged and said simply, “Just to look around.” The man looked at me in slight disbelief. We both couldn’t comprehend why the other would want to come to such a small, random place for such activities. But I knew there was more I could have said about my intentions that would justify my coming to the island; it’s not everyday you see a volcano, but a football match could be played anywhere. I couldn’t see how the two could be of similar significance. When he said “Are you coming to watch the game tonight?” I made a face and replied “Probably not.” ‘Why would I bother watching a bunch of guys kick a ball around?’ I thought to myself sceptically.

On arrival at Heimaey, an untidy jumble of square white houses with red and blue roofs are littered out in front of you, like dirty socks left lying around a room carelessly. It’s not a sight that exudes much character. I left the footballers and wondered up an empty street to find my accommodation for the night – Guesthouse Heidrid. A few seconds after I told someone outside that I was looking for a lady called Ruth, a door opened and a lady with frizzy hair appeared, looking a little flustered as a large dog squeezed between her legs to get out. “Yes! I’m Ruth,” she said breathlessly, and before I’d had a chance to properly introduce myself she’d handed me a key to my room, saying over her shoulder, “You can pay me later tonight, I’ve just got to go to the other house,” before shooting up the road. I’d got the impression from a few website features on Vestmannaeyjar that Ruth was quite a big name on the island, being responsible for the running of the town’s Volcanic Film Show. She also seemed to be a big fan of puffins – photos of them covered the walls of my cosy room. But I liked how laid-back she was – it made me feel welcome.

A must-see on the island is the House Graveyard – the resting place of 400 buildings buried under lava in the 1973 eruption. Amongst large piles of rock, wooden signposts indicate the name and position of each deceased establishment. Reading from a sign that a swimming pool was situated under your feet 30 years ago is an inconceivable concept – I can’t imagine how terrifying it must have been, and there’s something quite haunting about the area, as if the spirits of the building are still lurking around you.

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The base of Eldfell is about 10 minutes away, and teasing drops of rain fell every now and then as I began the ascent. Just as I was beginning to feel grateful for my sturdy hiking boots, I spotted a group of three teenagers ahead, walking over the crumbly reddish terrain in normal trainers and carrying nothing but what looked like a newspaper between them. Their casual dress seemed to undermine my perceived significance of the activity I was undertaking. The final 100m of the hike is quite a thigh-burner, made worse by the wind and rain slapping your cheeks mockingly. But when you get to the top and gaze at the volcanic cone of Helgafell in front of you before the ocean to the south, it’s a great feeling. There were a few others up on the summit, but the moody skies around seemed to put them off staying too long. I wanted to give the weather a chance though, and sure enough, a window began to open slowly, letting sunlight gradually stream through. Tuffets of cotton-wool clouds formed in the sky and the ocean began to shimmer as the sun finally broke through determinedly. I’d made the right choice.

I wondered over the narrow ridge at the top of the volcano, only to see the three teenagers sat in a crevice, reading the newspaper. They seemed to represent the standard teenager: bored and frustrated. As someone who’d just experienced something completely new, I found it difficult to understand their emotions. Afterall, it’s not everyday anyone can casually go and read the news on a volcano. One of them then got out a lighter and set the paper on fire, watching it burn with a disinterested expression on his face. I wondered how the three of them felt about tourists from all over coming and invading their tiny homeland. Suddenly I was reminded of my own thoughts growing up in my tiny hometown, when I’d see a collection of cars parked up on grass verges, or walkers trampling over the heather. Sometimes I’d resented it, as if I felt they were rudely intruding on my private property.  As I’d got older I’d craved a change of scene, struggling to grasp why people wanted to visit the area much, simply because I’d lived there my whole life and it was all I was used to. And that was maybe how these kids felt too; they’d forgotten the significance of this place, from taking its constant presence in their life for granted.

A few minutes later the teenagers lumbered back down the mountain, and I was left to myself. I felt like a lone wolf at the top of a mountain, surveying the land and sea below for approaching enemies.  Thinking about home after seeing the teenagers prompted me to turn my phone on, and I sent a text to my parents with the line ‘Greetings from the top of a volcano’. Reading those words was so bizarre, and I kept wondering to myself, ‘How dangerous is it that I’m up in this volcano alone..?’ I stayed up there a while longer, until I heard a hissing noise from a hole in the ground and started to get a little nervous…

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When you reach the bottom of Eldfell, head further south to the coast, making sure you say hello to the Icelandic ponies on the way (just beware of the electric fence). On the coast near the gold course, you’re bound to see puffins sitting nobly in the cliff crevices. These animals are a national symbol of Iceland, and a popular dish too! The rain began to fall again, and I made a mad dash for cover in what seemed to be an empty workshop just off the golf course, wondering whether this counted as trespassing. Cheering sounded from the distance, and I suddenly remembered what the Spanish footballer had said about a game. ‘Sounds pretty rowdy for a kickabout,’ I thought to myself, and I decided to have a quick look once the shower ended.

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English-style chants in an Icelandic tongue grew louder on approach, and I looked around in bewilderment as I saw small groups of people clustered on the banks outside a tiny stadium. A boy with a yellow-coated dog stood in front of me, occasionally making excited comments to a guy with a ponytail smoking nearby who, with his fluorescent jacket, I assumed was on security. Feeling liked I’d just turned up to a small house gathering only to find that it had been gate-crashed, I scrutinised the players on the pitch. One team was in white, the other blue. Suddenly I recognised the Spanish player from the boat who’d referred me to the English speaker. ‘But what is this for?’ I asked myself in confusion. The boy with the yellow dog seemed too focussed on the game to ask, since his dog was busy getting its lead caught around its legs without him noticing, so I approached an old man instead. “Afsakið, talar pú ensku?” I asked uncertainly. He nodded with a warm smile, and I continued “What is this match for?” He gave the names of two teams, and seeing my blank expression said, “It’s like the Icelandic Premier League.” Ohhhh. I looked on the field again. The Spanish guys had just scored, and the boy with the dog swore furiously. I watched the goalkeeper get to his feet. He looked familiar, even from the far distance. I turned to the man again, as it slowly dawned on me. “The goalkeeper for the Vestmannaeyjar team…is that..?” The man smiled, “David James, yes!”

Suddenly everything clicked into place, after I’d previously missed the connection. A few seconds of feeling sheepish for being so cynical about the Spanish guy’s comments were followed by a burst of self-deprecating laughter. As the match finished and hoards of people filtered out of the stands,  I walked amongst them back to the guesthouse, almost in a daze as I ran through the bizarre events of the day. This experience had been so surreal and unexpected. Of all the things I thought I might come across in Iceland, this link back to England wasn’t one of them, especially as a follow-up to me chilling on top of a volcano by myself for two hours. I’d gone from an experience that felt so weird – because of it being completely unusual in my normal life and surroundings – to something that seemed even weirder because of its stark familiarity with home in contrast. Never before would I have put volcanoes and footballers in the same sentence. For some reason, the idea that Iceland would have a similar sports institution to England had gone over my head. Just like the teenagers on Eldfell struggled to appreciate the remarkable value of their hometown’s natural monument to tourists, I’d assumed there couldn’t be any significance in a game of football, because it was such a familiar element in my life.

It’s moments like this that make travelling such a fantastic thing – the weird coincidences that you experience on the way supplement the wonderful sights that you see. And most of the time, these links occur during the process of locomotion. Getting around on different forms of transport can be tiring and tedious, but events like this add entertainment and make what one assumes to be the most boring aspects of travelling become an open ticket to another special memory. Even though I would have still finished that day able to tick ‘Hike a volcano’ off my life to-do list, the state of having an awesome experience on the Westmann Islands wouldn’t have been reached without the various travel connections made during the day. 

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One thought on “Travel Connections: The Weird & Wonderful Westmann Islands

  1. Pingback: Travel & Trainers – An Evening Run Around Selfoss | soleseeking

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