Escape to Portugal: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon

My third morning in Portugal saw me heading to Lisbon, with a single bus ticket costing 19Euros. In the early hours of the morning I quietly stuffed clothes into my bag, praying that the zip wouldn’t break under pressure. I had my bus ticket in my camera bag, so at least I wouldn’t have to open this one for a few more hours…

Even though I had walked past it previously, I still found myself getting lost on the way to Redo Expresso bus station. On a street corner I dropped my bags to the floor and reluctantly re-opened my bag to rummage around for my map, pulling out clothes creased with a frown that seemed to say ‘I was just getting comfortable’. Out spilled my toiletries from the plastic bag used for the airport screening, the bristles of my toothbrush just happening to land on the dirty floor. I quickly clarified where I was and, hearing footsteps approaching, precariously shoved my things back inside the bag. It was 7.30 in the morning and on this empty street, I probably should have been more careful not to expose my luggage like that.

Inside the bus station a scruffy man loitered between waiting passengers asking for money and occasionally yelling out bus numbers. I noticed a tall skinny blonde girl on my left with a large suitcase also avoiding his unsettling gaze. Looking down as he approached again, I noticed I still had toothpaste on my legs from having applied it to defend me against midges in the night. Whoops. A darker girl eating a pastry then joined the blonde and asked if I knew the ETA for Lisbon. I followed them onto the bus and they happened to sit down adjacent to my reserved seat, only my window space was taken up by a sleeping lady who scowled at me when I attempted to explain. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get far so I sat down next to the aisle with her bum sticking into my right thigh and buckled up. It soon emerged that I was the only one wearing my seatbelt. As we zoomed along the motorway, passengers would walk up to the driver to ask him something without any repercussions. A sharp contrast from transport rules in England!

I got talking to the girls next to me. One was from Croatia and the blonde was a Hungarian called Virág. “It means ‘flower’ in English,” she proudly told me. They had been participating in a student exchange program in Porto and were bewildered when I said I was travelling alone (“aren’t you scared?”) Virág would be alone in Lisbon until Monday and was keen to go sightseeing together.

I always find it a little strange when I meet people travelling who want to buddy-up. If friends from home ask if I get lonely when travelling, I often say that it’s easy to meet people, and yet when I do I’m sometimes reluctant to spend time with them, having got comfortable with my own plans and company. Sometimes just 15 minutes of chatter is enough to satisfy a desire for conversation. Nevertheless as we headed towards the metro station, I swapped numbers with the Hungarian girl, but with neither of us having Portuguese sim cards and hence being unable to call each other, we simply set a time and place to meet in Baixo.

Outside Jardim Zoológico station we were accosted by a lady who pointed at her daughter in a pram and held out her hand for money. I’ve seen homeless people in London use dogs as an incentive to give them money, but never a child. There would be further sights of poverty on the metro as disfigured men walked through carriages asking for money. I would later be told by a Lisbon-expert that such facial damage is sometimes be created intentionally for begging purposes.

A green ‘Viva Viagem’ card costs 50 cents and you can top up accordingly for where you need to travel to, with a single journey costing 1.40. Leaving the Baixa-Chiado metro station, I was overwhelmed by the rush of people and the midday heat. Porto had been quieter and simpler in terms of navigation, but here I had no idea where to begin. I paid 3Euros for a map from a vendor who pointed me in the direction of Alfama, where my hostel was. He told me it would take an hour to walk there. I just wanted to throw my luggage somewhere and chill out for a while, but the mere thought of walking in this heat and through these crowds was exhausting on its own.

124

I wandered down streets with boutiques and high-fashion stores towards the Praça do Comércio, the statue of King José I overlooking the Rio Tejo. The bright sun reflected off the gravelly ground and my head began to feel heavy from the heat. It had only been 10 minutes of walking, but that was enough for me to know that I really didn’t feel up to walking around sightseeing today. However I was unable to get through to Virág, and I wasn’t convinced she had given me the correct number in the first place for me to try texting her. By the time I would reach my hostel to dump my bag and rest in the shade for a bit, it seemed that getting back to meet her on time would be difficult.

So there I was in this odd and unexpected situation of feeling a sense of loyalty to someone, of having to think about someone else. The only other time this had been the case was when I was travelling with a boyfriend whose welfare I naturally wanted to consider. But this was a person who I had only just met. I felt conflicted in that part of me wanted to be alone, yet I almost felt a sense of duty to hang out with this stranger, especially following our spontaneous plan to meet.

With my battery running low but having failed to get through to Virág, I hesitantly turned off my phone. A Yellow Bus Tours kiosk near to where I was sat on a stone stool downing all the water I had left was advertising a boat tour on the river. This seemed like a great way to see the city without having to walk around, and I told myself that I would regret not filling my time with some sort of passive activity. I paid 16Euros for the tour and asked the helpful girl for more recommendations of what to see before joining the queue. Virág had seemed slightly wary of walking around alone and I felt terrible when I glanced at my watch on board the boat at 3 p.m., imagining her standing outside the station waiting for me. But I told myself that this experience would be good for her, and reminded myself that I was here to see Lisbon, not keep people company who I didn’t know and might not even have much in common with. Making friends would just be a bonus of the trip.

The 90 minute boat tour itself was pleasant enough. We passed Cacilhas in the municipality of Almada opposite Lisbon before sailing underneath the Ponte 25 de Abril which seems to represent a European version of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran. Built in 1966, the name of the suspension bridge refers to the Carnation Revolution of 1974, with this date being celebrated yearly as ‘Freedom Day’ from the fascist dictatorship of  Estado Novo (New State). To our left stood the Cristo Rei (Christ the King), embracing Lisbon with open arms in a pose similar to that seen on the monument in Rio de Janeiro. This was inaugurated in 1959 to commemorate Portugal’s promise not to participate in the Second World War, the pose being intended to express gratitude for the subsequent lack of hardship borne on the nation. With the famous fado music being played in the background, the tour commentary then drew our attention to the Torre de Belém on our right, which was built in the 16th Century as a base for defending Lisbon from foreign attacks. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is an impressive monument erected in 1960 to celebrate Portugal’s imperial expansion during the 15th Century.

130 132 135 138

With a better idea of Lisbon and it’s history (and some fresh river breeze) inside me, I was re-energised and ready to find my hostel in Alfama. The man who had suggested it would take an hour’s walk couldn’t have been more wrong. I hoped he just had a terrible sense of time and direction and it wasn’t because he had looked at me and assumed I was too weak to walk at a good pace! Walking up Rua da Madalena in this Old Town area of the city was the moment when I began to develop an attraction towards Lisbon. Life became a constant scene of steep cobbled streets with the pretty tiles on the houses like those in Porto – only prettier and radiating more warmth because of the extra sun – with trams clanging and tuk tuks whizzing past.

147

My map led me past Igreja Sta Luzia where I was distracted by the sight of three women putting finishing touches to a mural of blue and white tiles. Behind a pool of water was a lookout point with purple flowers dangling down from the pillars. White houses with orange roofs and rising Church steeples sat gathered before the shimmering blue of the river. Further up, the lookout from the Igreja St Tiago was even more rewarding. Before coming to Portugal, I had envisioned a large reddish-brown wooden door surrounded by pretty paintwork and lush flowers. Now I had found that image. Here was what I regarded as quintessential Portugal, and it was lovely. I surveyed the nearby tourists for who looked to be the most reliable photographer, but even she didn’t seem to get what elements were needed to make it a good photo. Once again I was reminded of a key downside of solo travel.

141 142 145

150 152 153

159

157

Carrying on up the Rua de St. Tome, the postcard-perfect views continued. I eventually managed to drag myself away and found the road that led to my hostel, passing a salsa bar on the corner with a red mini parked outside. Alfama Patio Hostel – what a place! My impression of Lisbon continued to grow. Dumping my stuff in my dorm, I changed into sandals and went in search of an ATM, tempted by the receptionist’s talk of a BBQ. Map-less, I walked along the street past more gorgeous houses with old men sat on the tables outside smoking wistfully. Tuk tuks would appear out of nowhere, charging up the narrow streets but in a way that was entertaining rather than off-putting. I walked up a street towards the famous Castelo de São Jorge and dropped some cents in the tin of a small lady playing the accordion. Further up a group of tanned, long-haired guys and girls in their mid-twenties attracted a large crowd with their music. I ignored the men bothering people with sales of selfie-sticks and continued my hunt for an ATM.

166 164 156 170 171 11053350_10156099506290495_1445945638224754788_o

Walking back, a solo guitarist played outside a restaurant on the corner and I experienced a brief longing for a romantic date. A mini-mercado sold iced tea and orange biscuits and I sat slurping away on a bench at one of the viewpoints next to a hunky French guy with a man-bun smoking a roll-up and tapping his feet to Bob Marley’s ‘Concrete Jungle’ playing in a restaurant below. Later on on the viewing ledge opposite young boys would start break-dancing. This area and the view around was infectious, one of those places where it didn’t matter if you were alone and not doing anything specific – you could just sit and get lost in your thoughts.

11794156_10156099506720495_2795698731096700444_o

Back at the hostel I got chatting to an an older German lady on the patio who recommended that I see Belém, before she left to meet a friend. People then started arriving from the sister-hostels for this barbecue. I wanted to at least have become acquainted with someone else who was going before heading down to join, but the Swiss girls in my dorm were pretty cliquey and it was difficult to make conversation. I looked out of my open window at the increasing mass of people, trying to psych myself up. ‘I’ll go down in 10 minutes,’ I would tell myself, but I kept adding time on as I began to feel more and more shy. I climbed up to my bunk, unsure what to do. My stomach began to rumble and I ended up opening my pack of biscuits and remaining in the dorm all evening, too shy to go downstairs to a party and introduce myself to an English-speaking crowd. ‘This is pathetic, what’s wrong with you?’ I thought. I had flashbacks to my first solo trip, hesitantly going down to the hostel kitchen in Toronto and daring myself to make conversation with an Aussie guy. I had come so far since that point four years ago, and now I seemed to have regressed. But something put me off joining the party and I instead opted to feel lonely, with only a 1Euro pack of biscuits for comfort.

Out of desperation I turned on my phone, as if hoping it would provide me with some sort of company. Normally I hate using social media whilst travelling but I was craving contact from someone, anyone! A text message with a new number flashed up. It was Virág from earlier, asking where I was. I felt awful and relieved at the same time, instinctively texting back to explain myself. Suddenly the idea of being alone in Lisbon for the next two days didn’t appeal. I had been reading my guidebook for ideas of what to do whilst here and proposed that we spend the next day together in Sintra. We agreed a time and location and my optimism increased. My outlook had changed and I was now looking forward to getting to know someone new, and getting to know a new place with them.

The party continued all night. It was a Friday evening and I knew I couldn’t expect much less. But as much as I struggled to fall asleep, I felt better for having a plan for the next day, and for now having what would soon become great company. Now when I reflect back on how things turned out, I’m glad that I was a social wimp and sad loner on that evening…

*

Read how the next day went in Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Advertisements

Why is Sunset Beautiful?

The title of this blog post comes from a question that someone I know once randomly posed – a question that I’ve never really thought about before. Being an everyday phenomenon, sunset is something we are so accustomed to that we don’t bother questioning why we value it so much.  Here are some thoughts.

Watching a sunset, we see a blend of soft colours ooze into a relaxing haven of warmth. This calms our minds and comforts our bodies, and the sensual gratification that we receive in turn creates a sense of romance, which everybody at one stage or another desires. People wish to be happy, and a sunset sources the chemicals that grant this. When we ourselves feel happy, we have a more positive outlook towards life, which makes us more likely to regard the things around us as being of beauty.

DSC_0453

Hawaii

The changing of colours that come with a sunset- from yellow to orange to red to violet – is unusual in that we are not used to seeing these colours during most of the day. The element of being unique can contribute to notions of beauty. Strong colours in the sky cast a glow over the land which we become immersed in, leading to a sense of escapism as if we are in a different world. When the colours reflect on water, a sparkling path invites us closer to the warm sun, which leads onto my next point…

10639688_10154684642255495_6434228660347296017_n

 

 

Vancouver Island

Changing colours around the Gulf Islands

We rely on the sun to live, because light is our planet’s main source of energy. Without photosynthesis, we and the other wonderful organisms that decorate the Earth wouldn’t be alive. A factor that contributes to visions of human beauty is health – healthy skin, healthy teeth, healthy hair. The health benefits of the sun therefore give it a saintly status; we regard it as beautiful because its physical effects make us as individuals feel beautiful. But it is only at sunset when we are safe to look at the sun and really appreciate its features and what it does for us. Just like we can describe a generous human as having ‘a beautiful soul’, describing the setting sun as beautiful is a (perhaps subconscious) way to express gratitude for yet another day of preserving and nurturing life.

DSC_0113

Tofino

Sunset may also be regarded as beautiful because of its accessibility.  Some people see it more than others depending on their country’s climate and location. To those ‘others’, the lesser ease of access to the sun’s company makes sunset seem more pure and beautiful in its value – like a holy temple that one must undertake a pilgrimage to see, or a highly-renowned hidden jewel that grants the power of immortality.

Sunset softens the surrounding landscape and gives it a new dimension that we may not have noticed in the daytime. It can add charm and character to a prairie landscape or bland city and help define key features. The silhouettes a sunset creates cause contrast, arousing a sense of mystery.  A sunset highlights patterns in the clouds which capture our imagination, as we try to trace recognisable shapes.  Ripples in the water off Vancouver Island become more noticeable in their neatness, as if each has been carefully crafted by hand.  Sunset stimulates our visual and emotional creativity.

Sunset in the Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Grand Tetons

…and after

311092_10150812177490495_1374327571_n

Vancouver Island

Sunset is also something that we have no control over, and that aspect, whether you believe it to be caused by science or a religious being, captivates and fascinates us. From certain places such as the Grand View Point Overlook in Utah’s Canyonlands, one can’t tell where the sun is disappearing to. It looks like it will simply merge into the ground and flow out in all directions like lava. When it doesn’t, we often think nothing of it and do something else now that the show is over. But when you really think further than all the prettiness, our planet has just rotated without us even realising – a significant and yet minor process when one considers that this activity occurs alongside the other under-acknowledged activity in our huge solar system, which itself is just one of billions of galaxies. If you take a moment to really consider what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s a pretty beautiful thought.

Canyonlands

Early sunset in Canyonlands

Canyonlands

Goodnight from the Grand View Point Overlook

On a road trip, the sun’s slow setting encourages us to carry on going, teasing and taunting us so that we feel inclined to chase it. The sun can keep us company and out of boredom, we hope that its remaining light will lead us to our final destination for the day, somewhere interesting. It really can be ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.

1469

 

Sunset even seems to make the surrounding environment and wildlife appear peaceful. We associate it with sweet bird song and the chatter of insects. It signals the winding-down of the day, with its slow process helping us to de-stress from a busy day. Psychologically, we can associate it with having accomplished something in the daytime and subsequently earned rest.

DSCN5163

Serenity in the Black Forest, Germany

Sometimes, the setting sun might make us feel sombre, as it symbolises the final hours of a beautiful journey and the closing of another chapter of life. But is any strong emotion that is inspired by something physical not beautiful in some way?

291969_10150812226150495_719070494_22092020_1155867386_n

Vancouver Island

To sum up, sunset is perhaps beautiful not necessarily just because of the visual aesthetics, but because of the secondary emotional, mental and physical associations that it stimulates.

The Test of Time

How does one assess how they’ve ‘improved’ as a traveller?

Three years ago as I was getting ready for my first solo trip to Canada, I was both excitedly and anxiously curious about the places I would see and people I would meet, with no idea what to expect. I packed and repacked my backpack, stressing about being able to fit everything in. Upon landing in Toronto I had a swarm of butterflies in my stomach as I fluttered around the airport in a daze of confusion. Relief came when a man from a bus company approached asking if I was looking for a way to get downtown. I sat upright staring out of the window the whole way with a beating in my chest, too nervous to make conversation with anyone else. When I got off the bus in the city I had little idea of where I was or where to start, asking a girl who looked my age for directions with a squeaky voice. I had to spend five minutes psyching myself up to approach a group of people who were cooking dinner in my hostel.

312239_10150812167515495_1532680086_n

On the ferry to Vancouver Island, August 2011

Then, three years later in July I went back to Canada and the feelings were very different from the first time. Excitement was there, but of a different kind. There was no real sense of wonder about what it would be like; I was simply returning to what felt like a second home. I was like a child returning to my usual sweet shop on the corner to buy my usual treat, knowing that it would be there and I would enjoy it. Packing took little time and I glanced over my backpack like a protective parent less frequently. Gone were the butterflies as I strode through Vancouver airport’s arrival lounge. I still wasn’t sure exactly where I was going to get to my final destination, but it didn’t worry me like it would have previously. I calmly followed signs to the trains and confidently asked people questions when necessary. I then boarded a bus and sat back in my seat relaxed, exchanging smiles with an old man when I heard him make a joke to someone. I bought a ticket for the ferry to Vancouver Island and initiated a conversation with an older man and woman. It was only when I arrived at my final destination that the excitement really vamped up. On that first evening back in Canada, I felt immensely proud of how far I had come since my first travel experience alone.

936681_10154684643875495_8157810608376501458_n

A boat trip around the island,  July 2014

So much assessment of a person is carried out using academic testing – systems based on objective, quantitative scoring. The education system in England and many other countries means that one only adopts a belief that they are improving at a subject if they receive an improved numerical score for an examination.  Even if someone feels they are understanding a topic easier, receiving a low or average score dents their self-belief. Students are pushed into a system where learning is about passing exams rather than developing a wider intelligence that can be applied to everyday life. However, some of those students who consistently receive the highest marks will have little confidence outside of the classroom in a new social environment. Their grades say little about their personal human development as a whole.

The numerical system of assessment doesn’t have to be used with travelling. There is no test to pass in order to impress anyone nor checklist to complete for someone else to approve,  but simply an experience for one to evaluate for themselves qualitatively. Real-life events allow one to see how far they have developed not as an academic in one specific intellectual sphere, but as a person in general. If a mistake is made, such as getting lost on a map or being conned by someone, there need to be less stress about the repercussions it will have on one’s future career – it is simply a useful life lesson. There is no rush to become better at travelling within a short time period, unlike the pressure a student can face to understand algebra or the Second World War in two weeks’ time. Travel really is one of the most independent, most effective, most fulfilling and most enjoyable forms of learning.

When I returned to Canada, my confidence and ability to travel alone had increased over the past three years not from three years of studying for a degree in London, but from the summers throughout this time when I went travelling. These were the times when the biggest tests were asked of me: the ability to organise myself; communicate with others effectively; cope with difficult situations; be decisive and use initiative; be constantly physically active and mentally alert. No longer were these tests being asked of me in the classroom, but in the real world. And one of the best ways to assess how I had grown as a traveller was to return to the place where it all began and compare the emotions felt. Of all the exams that I have taken on the way to completing my entire education and therefore preparing to enter the real world permanently, travelling has been my favourite and most valuable test.

 

Clogs and Canals: Highlights of Amsterdam

It’s hard to believe that already two months ago two friends and I were in Amsterdam for a New Year trip. It only takes a couple of days to fall in love with this small and charming city, which has much more to it than hash cafes and sex shops…

Vondelpark

A large public green space in the west of the city,  this is an ideal starting point for your first day. Cyclists and joggers abound, there was a sense of youth and vitality in the crisp air; no lethargy from the end of another year. Blauwe Theehuis (The Blue TeaHouse) serves hot chocolate with rum and is a good place to get the map out…Fireworks would blast off in the distance while we sat planning our day – the party starts early in Amsterdam!

1484142_10153722453075473_333397224_n 1601502_10153722453540473_1178163327_n

Cultural Mixes

Leidseplein was a hub of human activity. Conventional Christmas carols were swapped for pumping latino beats at the ice rink that sat surrounded by beer houses, with people milling around laughing in their snug winter coats. The non-stop chatter of people as they swarmed the streets was only occasionally interrupted by the clang of a tram gatecrashing the party.

023 016 024

Tasty Bites

The smell of sizzling onions lured visitors to the bratwurst stalls. I followed it up with an Olliebollen – a Dutch doughnut with raisins inside, dusted with icing sugar. Somehow I managed to avoid the fudge stall, but pancakes would come the next day…

0191486797_10153722456260473_1656396544_n

A City of Canals
Reflections from the street lights dazzled off the calm water of the canals, creating sparks of romance as we followed the crowds on our pilgrimage to the city centre, with beaming lamps showing us the way.

078

079

028

Dam Square

Even the rain shower failed to dampen the glow over the central square from the festive lights, as people wandered around for the last few hours of 2013 with open minds and open wallets.

031 033 034 036

Bars and Banter

Many choices for drinking, but we chose the Irish bar ‘Yip Fellows’ for its free entry, fair-priced drinks, old-school music and welcoming atmosphere. We met no Irish, but a bunch of Austrians instead, who were just as fun-loving…

041

Street Celebrations

Huge crowds filled the Square ready for the countdown, with fireworks shooting off in all directions and beer cans clinking. We managed to make out an ‘eight’ and were on our way.

1560731_10153722460345473_1138188358_n

050

My friend Alice took this great photo below – it almost looks like Amsterdam has been struck by anarchic riots..!

482499_10153722460145473_1346870237_n

Bloemenmarkt

A lovely way to welcome in the New Year was to stroll down the Singel to the flower market. If you manage to come away without buying a souvenir, you’ve done well.

055 056 062

Aesthetic Architecture

The crow-stepped and clock-gabled buildings are a defining feature of Amsterdam, complemented by the trendy gangs of bikes huddled nearby and boats dozing at the sides of the canal. It’s no surprise that the Canal Ring is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

058  063 066 - Copy 067 069

The Bloemgracht below is one of the prettiest areas of Amsterdam, oozing peaceful tranquillity.

075

The Red Light District

The next day we followed a red dragon to the Red Light…an area which is, sadly I think, one of the reasons Amsterdam is so popular with foreign visitors.

096 085

But this aspect of the city fails to tarnish its overall class and beauty.

091

Thanks for a lovely stay!

099

For thoughts on New Year’s Eve in general, click

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.

104

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…

114 - Copy

115

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.

123

127

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. 

131