Return to Reykjavík: Tourism & the Changing Face of Iceland

Everyone is talking about Iceland. That island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean with Björk, an unassumingly victorious football team and those hard-to-pronounce volcanoes. Its convenient location between Europe and North America has been taken advantage of on a higher scale in the past few years, and with Icelandair offering up to seven days of stopover time for free, why wouldn’t you go and see what all the fuss is about?

I first visited Iceland in August 2013. It was becoming more popular at that time but still had a minimalist feel to it that made me warm to it. I sensed that things would be different when I returned for a quick stop in December 2016 en route to Canada.

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Some things remained the same. The FlyBus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík still played the same man’s slow, soothing voice to welcome passengers. As we passed the same barren lands and swathes of lava fields, I still got flashbacks to medieval times, imagining Viking soldiers in battle. But as we entered the surrounding towns and suburbs of the city, I noticed more apartment buildings than before. Had they always been here and I simply hadn’t noticed? Maybe the sparkling Christmas lights just made them stand out more? No, there were definitely more. The place looked more developed and modern.

My friend picked me up from the BSÍ terminal and confirmed the development that had been taking place in and around the city. She asked if I had any plans for my two and a half days in Iceland. I realised I hadn’t given it too much thought; my main goal was to see the Northern Lights. But I also thought it would be nice to go to a geothermal pool, since I had chickened out of going to one on my last visit due to shyness about the nudity element of pre-bathing showering. I had always regretted what had later seemed like a pathetic reason not to go. My friend suggested we go inland to a place called the Secret Lagoon, which was a geothermal pool smaller, less commercial and more natural than the popular Blue Lagoon, a place I briefly stopped by at on my last visit and didn’t enjoy. She had also never been and so it seemed like a great idea.

After waiting for snow storms to pass the next morning, we set off to a town called Flúðir. The Secret Lagoon is definitely secret in that there are no signs indicating where it is. Once we arrived however, we were surprised by the number of cars parked up. I was expecting a very rustic set up with mostly native customers, but reception was bustling with a variety of nationalities. I paid 2500ISK for the ticket and followed my host to the changing rooms.

“So, we have to shower completely naked here, don’t we?” I asked, feeling the butterflies from three years ago begin to flutter back into my stomach. My friend nodded with a smile. I took a deep breath and undressed, looking straight ahead as I walked towards the shower. It was as if I thought this would stop people looking at me, but I soon realised that nobody was going to look at me anyway. Showering naked in public was so much less of an issue than I had previously let myself believe. ‘Good on Icelanders,’ I began thinking in support of their fearlessness and the motive behind it to protect their natural pools. Later on, I would even find myself shooting disapproving glares at the back of a bunch of Brits who I noticed proceed towards the pool having showered in their swimsuits. We are definitely a prude nation when it comes to public nudity (which seems ironic given that we have a fame-obsessed culture that promotes sex appeal in the form of body exposure through mediums such as sexting, glamour modelling and risque TV entertainment as a tool of socio-economic advancement.)

The Lagoon was very relaxing. There was even something refreshing about having your face pelted with hail stones from above whilst your body remained submerged in warm water. However it wasn’t as quiet as I’d hoped. Perhaps selfishly, I’d expected fewer people. As more loud groups entered the water and the drinking increased, the experience became more distracting than relaxing and we got out. Before arriving, I had already decided that I wouldn’t write a blog post about the place, in order to preserve its secrecy. I now realised that the Lagoon’s name had become an appealing marketing tool, and there was actually no secret to hide anymore.

The next morning over breakfast, my friend read a newspaper article which highlighted the growing problem of tourists feeding horses in the wild. These animals are not used to eating sugar or bread, and the treats were actually causing more harm than good, with more horses suffering from digestive problems without access to medical help. If you are reading this and planning to road trip through Iceland, please do not feed the horses or try to bribe them with food to come closer. They are self-sufficient animals and will not starve without your treats, nor suffer without your petting.

Another article discussed the rising number of car accidents on roundabouts as foreign visitors do not adopt Iceland’s road rules. On a roundabout, those in the inner lane have right of way to exit. I know – seems bonkers – but we should respect another country’s rules nonetheless. Another article reported that Keflavík airport had seen a record 6 million people enter its doors in 2016, a 25% increase from 2015. There are 323,000 inhabitants of Iceland.

That day, my friend took me on a rainy tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest of the country. Lava fields smother the land  where you can find the Bridge Between Continents – a fissure in the ground where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and diverge. The gap grows by 2 cm every year. Further on is Gunnuhver, the steam vents and mud pools of which are named after a female ghost whose shouting is supposedly symbolised by the eruption of the geyser. Reading her story reminded me of the mythologies I learned on my last visit – cultural traditions that helped make Iceland unique in more ways than its geology and landscape. Ferocious waves battered the cliffs as we drove further on. I read about a bird called the Great Auk, the last colony of which lived on a small island called Eldey off the coast of Iceland, before becoming extinct in 1844. Similarly looking to the penguin, it was flightless and stood no chance against human hunters.

In the town of Grindevík, we ate lobster soup in a small cafe decorated with ship memorabilia and an old piano. A group of Americans got up to leave shortly after we arrived, thanking the owner. The ditsy 20-something daughter then said to her mother, “How do you say ‘thank you’?” The mother had no answer. My friend grinned at me and I felt like dunking my face in my soup. A perfect example of one of the bad travel habits I wish I could see less of. Maybe I think too much, but I find that there’s something so rude about coming to a foreign country and not even bothering to learn one simple word (“takk”). You could argue that paying money for a travel experience represents enough ‘giving’ and justifies the ‘taking’, but I think this outlook promotes an imperial-esque sense of self-entitlement and disrespect for local culture.

On my final morning we took my friend’s dog for a quiet walk around a frozen lake. The only others we saw were a runner, another walker, and a party of horse riders.  I got the impression this was one of a decreasing number of places locals could come to where they wouldn’t find many tourists…at least in the early hours of the morning. In downtown Reykjavík later on, my friend pointed out the construction of new hotels. It’s a contentious issue, the threat that hotels and other tourist accommodation options like Airbnb pose to long-term rental space for locals. You get the sense that some natives feel they are prioritised below tourists when it comes to urban planning.

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Overall, my short return to Reykjavík was enough to illustrate the increased popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination since I last visited.  (Me ahead of a trend? Wow.) I’m not saying it’s bad that Iceland has become more popular. Afterall, as my friend acknowledged, tourism is good for the country’s economy. But my brief visit also illustrated the potential problems Iceland faces from its popularity growth. Its authenticity makes it popular and yet I worry that this is under threat from pressure to meet the expectations of tourists who come from more consumerist, materialistic and technologically advanced countries. I fear it’s in danger of becoming exploited at the expense of its culture, citizens and landscape.

I think of the slowly widening rift between the tectonic plates and relate it to what seems like a gradual tourist-takeover of Iceland. I think of the geographical mythologies and wonder if they’ll ever become regarded as archaic and unmarketable. I think of the Great Auk being hunted to extinction because of human greed. You’ll find ignorant and inconsiderate behaviour from tourists in any country, but for some reason I get defensive when Iceland is the victim. It’s perhaps because I have experienced the country from the perspective of both a tourist and local. I know how hard living in Iceland can be for Icelanders, and am able to see how large volumes of tourism can contribute to this. Are there any “secret” places anymore?  Apart from their homes, where can native Icelanders go where they are free from tourist-oriented advertisements, expensive cuisine, English-speaking “banter” and complaints about WiFi?

I grew up in the North York Moors National Park in England, a place that attracted tourists but never felt overrun by them. I was glad about this, because whilst I was happy for visitors to come and experience the beauty of the area, I didn’t like the idea of sharing my tranquil home with a mass of others. I don’t think there is anything rude or prejudiced about this. It seems a little too late for this concern in Iceland though; the main question is how a big a slice of the pie they will get.

I didn’t see the Northern Lights as hoped during my brief stay, as skies were too cloudy. Although it was a shame not to witness something I’d been hoping for, I took comfort knowing that there remains something in Iceland that can never be influenced and caused by tourist demands and actions. A natural phenomenon that doesn’t give a hoot about how much people want to see it and how much money they have to offer.

Please visit Iceland, just don’t plunder it. Support the economy, just don’t govern it. Embrace the culture, just don’t squash it. Take many a photo of the nature, just don’t leave a mark on it.

Communicating through Different Languages

Languages are commonly noted as a cause of difficulty when travelling. How are we supposed to know where we’re going if we can’t read a sign? How are we supposed to understand people telling us something in a foreign language? How are we supposed to be understood ourselves? Afterall, we can’t and shouldn’t assume that everyone we encounter can speak English. English-speaking travellers are fortunate in that most countries have English versions of documents and signage. However, there are inevitably moments when no translation is available and one finds himself frozen in speech, blocked by a barrier. This isn’t always a bad thing though; instead, it can teach us to use body language to express our thoughts and emotions. There is something heart-warming about ‘conversing’ with strangers without opening your mouth.

As a bridesmaid at a Polish wedding a couple of years ago, I was taken to a local hairdressers before the ceremony to get my hair done. I’ve always had long hair and my mum has always been my hairdresser (as well as my taxi-driver, nurse etc), therefore I was slightly anxious about how this would turn out.  A fellow bridesmaid drove the two of us down the highway before we turned off and entered a quiet village. Pulling up outside a small salon, a group of ladies stood outside smoking, leaning lazily against a wall with peeling paint. The oldest had platinum blonde hair tied back in a tight bun, and was accompanied by four girls who looked around my age. As I got out of the car they stood upright, surveying me curiously like prisoners checking out the latest arrival. I smiled a ‘hello’ nervously as my acquaintance explained what we’d like done, before following her tentatively inside. The blonde lady gestured to a chair and I sat down, feeling twitchy like a criminal waiting to be questioned. I found it quite daunting to allow a stranger who I could not issue with verbal instructions to have physical power over something that represents such a strong part of my identity. I gulped upon feeling the lady’s long, painted fingernails run through my wavy strands, but as she began massaging shampoo into my scalp, I began to relax.

Soon it was time to move to the other chair and my apprehensions returned. I approached it as if it was electric, unsure what the outcome would be. The lady opened her mouth to speak and then caught herself, remembering that I didn’t speak Polish. We looked at each other through the mirror as she gathered my hair into a bunch and moved it up the back of my head, wanting to know how high I wanted my bun. “Tak!” I said with a thumbs up, and she nodded her acknowledgement. Then she repeated this physical demonstration to ascertain how much volume I wanted on top.

As the lady played with my hair, I found myself unsure of where to look. I didn’t want to just stare at myself in the mirror the whole time, but I was unable to begin a conversation with the girls, and the other bridesmaid was busy chatting with her hairdresser. Instead, I looked down at my lap, playing with my hands and occasionally flashing glances at the girls in an attempt to assess how things were going. As if noticing my awkward discomfort, the lady doing my hair uttered something to one of the girls, who nodded obediently and turned around. On her return, she placed a bowl of chocolates in front of me, looking at me with a side-glance to them before backing away and putting her hands behind her back shyly. I smiled my thanks, unsure whether it was just a polite gesture or they actually wanted me to take one. Seeing the girl glance at me with embarrassment, I instinctively leaned forward and unwrapped the purple paper, enjoying the sight of her blush as I smiled and nodded a ‘delicious’.

Suddenly the lady’s hands stopped still. I looked up in the mirror with my mouth full of chocolate to see her looking at my hair uncertainly, biting her lip. The girls stood warily around her, eyes fixed fearfully on my hair as if it was about to explode. A sense of unease surged through me and I worried that if I attempted to swallow, I might start choking. What was wrong? The woman frowned in concentration and I could only sit helplessly wondering what she was doing back there, imagining her cursing the thickness of my hair. A few anxious minutes later, she stepped back and breathed out with a smile of relief. I returned it hesitantly. Then she got a mirror and held it up so I could see the finished result, checking my reaction with wide eyes of hope. It was exactly what I had wanted, and I flashed her a (double) hands up to show my approval, to which she beamed proudly. “The lady says you have beautiful hair,” the other bridesmaid told me. In the mirror the bridesmaids were looking at me and I said “Dziękuje” with a bashful smile.

The ladies waved us off with big smiles, looking rejuvenated. As a new face, I had made their day interesting (and challenging!)

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During the next summer, I spent some time travelling around Iceland. During my travels, I exchanged a smile and wave of recognition with members of a Chinese family after seeing them again only hours after a silent goodbye. I will never forget the look on their face when they saw me, with no words being necessary to express their delight. Then I spent a week doing a homestay help-exchange in Reykjavík. Painting the outside of the house on my penultimate day, I looked behind me to my right to see the cutest little boy from across the street watching me with interest. With his blinding blue eyes and white-blond hair, he resembled my brothers as six year olds. After a moment I said simply, “Ég tala ensku,” in an attempt to explain that I wouldn’t be able to understand him if he spoke. He nodded quietly…and of course began speaking Icelandic to me anyway. I looked at him to guess what he was communicating and after assuming that he was being a normal curious child, carefully presented him with my roller, pointing at the wall with an encouraging nod. His face breaking into a grin, he stepped forward and, taking the roller in two tiny hands, rubbed it up and down a foot’s length of the wall a few times. Then he looked at me expectantly and I said”Gott!” cheerfully, before he flashed his adorable smile again. 

Having a language barrier reinforces the value of observation. Helping supervise a children’s party during my job as an au pair, I could tell through my eyes only what the dynamic of the group friendship was. There is always the annoying hyper kid who laps up all the attention by putting on the Spiderman costume and shouting wildly, dashing around and almost breaking the plant pot. This contrasts with the ever-present shy, sweet boy who quietly plays in a corner with the jigsaw, expressing a wider interest in the things around him and showing his intelligence. I desperately wanted to go give him company but it wasn’t really possible; I could only smile at him encouragingly and hope that someone else would play with him. From greater observation over hearing, I could see when the adorable little boy wearing a bow tie with a pirate hat couldn’t open his lollipop, looking around worriedly as others opened theirs with ease, before relaxing as soon as he saw my outstretched helping hand.

Whether it’s the short-and-sweet smile of gratitude from someone to another offering a service; the lingering eye contact between two strangers at first sight; or the silent sign language of the hearing and speech impaired, communicating through body language can be quite a beautiful thing. Sometimes there is too much talking in the world without anything really being said. By using universal body talk to break down foreign language barriers, one can look deeper into the meaning of communication.

Nudity and the Solo Traveller

‘Tis the season to lose one’s clothing. Out come the bikinis and boardies, Pimms in the park and strawhats on the sand. The combination of summer heat and fewer clothes changes people. They become more cheeky and flirtatious. Van drivers whistle from their windows, runners cast sneaky glances at the others they pass, and Facebook becomes filled with bikini-selfies. Flesh makes people frisky. When it comes to actual nudity however, something happens to Brits and their flirty chat remains to be just that. In Britain, our ‘stiff upper lip’ appears to display itself at the sight of a naked body, particularly towards one whose owner isn’t exactly in their prime. Naturists tend to be mocked as tree-hugging hippies who are an embarrassment to society. By contrast, my experience of other areas of Europe so far suggests that attitudes towards nudity in these countries are a lot more relaxed. I’ll never forget kayaking past a beach in southern France during a school trip ages 13, an old man’s legs spread wide open bearing all. Rarely in Britain would you see such sights.

If you’re ever in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, make sure you spend a day bathing at Bodensee, near the Swiss border. It seems like the region’s entire 18-25 year old population descend on the town of Konstanz on a hot summer’s day. Boys jump off the bridge into the bright blue Rhine in attempts to impress the line of ladies lounging on the side of the river. Further along on the Strandbad Horn, the noise gets quieter and the people fewer. Sun-lovers sunbathe behind bushes on the edge of the lake, sometimes in the nude, or at least topless. I found myself lying metres from a tall tanned hunk with dark hair and black shorts. Jimi Hendrix played from his speakers as he read a book. I peeped sneakily from under my sunnies as he rose to his feet and dived into the water. Ahhh.

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I like to think that I’ve put myself out of my comfort zone a few times whilst travelling, and that I would continue to try new things. In previous posts, I’ve been writing about how travelling alone makes you more likely to do things that you otherwise might not consider in your home country. Looking back to that day, I felt completely comfortable being surrounded by sights of nudity. The area wasn’t very open, the bushes being a useful cover. Everybody was just doing their own thing and it didn’t feel like one was being perved on (well, apart from Jimi Hendrix guy by me). Those who wanted to bathe topless could do so and not feel like all eyes were on them, and those who didn’t feel like undressing could carry on as they wished. It was difficult for me to think of places in Britain where one could sense so much tolerance towards nude bathing. Whilst I didn’t feel any inclination to be pursuing this activity myself, I thought that I was totally cool with public nudity.

Go forward a year to my trip to Iceland. Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach was opened in Reykjavík in 2001. It’s a small and cosy haven of golden sand and warm water. You won’t get the temperatures of Bodensee, but the same sight of people bathing. Another key difference from Bodensee is that no chemical cleaners are used in the heated water, so visitors are expected to wash beforehand, naked. Ignore this expectation and you will not be too popular with the Icelanders. It’s a bit like the offence caused in Britain when a Yorkshireman moves to London – you’ll never be viewed with the same amount of respect again.

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I arrived at the beach and saw a large group of people sat in the hot tub, chatting with each other. They all seemed to know one another. Suddenly, shyness enveloped me and I couldn’t walk any further. I spent five minutes waiting near the entrance as men and women – mostly 50+ looking – passed me to enter the changing rooms. I was pretending to look out into the bay, but really I was psyching myself up to shower naked in public. I imagined myself stood among old ladies in a communal shower, and I was petrified. ‘Just walk in and scout the area – the showers might not be communal, and you can always walk out,’ said a voice in my head. ‘No!’ retorted the other, ‘If you walk away, they will know you were afraid of getting naked.’

I paced from one foot to the other, weighing up the options. It wasn’t like it would have to be awkward. There needn’t be any judging. All I had to do was be naked in front of other women for about 20 seconds. I would never have to see them again. We were all in the same boat. I was 21 years old, I needed to stop being a pansy. The place was free, it wasn’t like I was paying for potential cringy-ness. Surely it would just be like the many other things I’d done after originally being nervous about them. Afterwards I would look back and laugh at my anxiety, right? Was I really going to miss out on this new opportunity just because of feeling bashful about potentially seeing an old lady’s vagina? Oh jeez. Just the thought made me shudder.

There were a few large rocks around the edge of the beach. They signaled safety, and I tactically decided to take a long walk around the perimeter towards them, my sense of relief increasing the further away from the changing rooms I went. I sat and looked back at the building. It looked so innocent and inviting, yet so sneaky and devious at the same time. The close proximity of the changing rooms to the hot tub meant that nobody would be safe from stranger’s eyes. It wasn’t like at Konstanz, where nudity could be a lot more inconspicuous.

Nearby, a few ladies swam in the bay, grimacing as the cold water first touched their skin; the price they were paying for perhaps also being reluctant to shower naked in front of others. I decided that I would rather be in the warm water, and therefore take the plunge and have that shower…But really, would I? ‘Yes! Don’t be a loser. Go get naked,’ the voice said. I hesitated again.

Suddenly, music began to play from the changing rooms. It was the Baywatch theme tune. The distinctive sound of that thumping piano brought a smile to my face as I was reminded of Wednesday sports nights in the student’s union bar – drunk rugby players pulling off their tops and waving them around wildly without a care in the world. That was the attitude I should have. I quickly made up my mind – I was going to do it, I was going to shower naked in what was potentially a public place.

I rose from my hiding place and began bounding across the sand towards the changing rooms purposefully, determination surging through my veins, arms swinging resolutely, my heart beating faster with the adrenaline. I felt good. I was ready. Bring on the nudity! As I approached the facility, I saw a few people leaving. ‘Perfect! Even fewer people to shower with,’ I thought to myself happily. Then I noticed a sign with the word ‘Closed’ on it. Oh. So that song was the cue for the lunchtime break. I’d missed my chance, just as I had finally prepared myself to get nek’ed. I looked at the changing room entrance and shrugged my shoulders in defeat. Then I breathed a sigh of relief and strode out of the exit feeling content.

Of course, looking back now I think of how silly I was to get all shy about the prospect of being naked in front of a load of random women. I had both surprised and slightly disappointed myself with my bashfulness. But nudity happens to be a particular subject that can make even the most confident-sounding people blush. Was my behaviour inspired by the British outlook towards nudity that I’ve grown up witnessing? Or are there just some things that it’s not so easy to do when you’re alone? Afterall, as stated before, familiarity is a comfort in strange situations. This scenario highlighted the potential restrictions one may experience travelling alone. But hopefully this is a lesson in how letting timidity determine your decisions will only lead to regret. I would like to put my hands up and say that one day, I hope to visit a beach like this one and shower naked with lots of ladies.

 

Souvenirs and Sentimentality

One day as I  went to leave my flat for a class during my second year of univesity, I went to spritz myself with some body spray, but nothing came out of the can. I shook it and pressed down harder on the releaser, but there was no sound of jolting liquid from inside; instead all I heard was a pathetic gasp of empty air. I unwillingly put the can back down, feeling a brief sense of glum. I had other deodorants and perfumes that I could use, but for some reason I still left feeling incomplete, as if I’d lost something.

Then a week later, my watch stopped working. At face value it’s not a particularly special watch of huge monetary worth – a black leather strap wearing away on the inside, its face with its lightly scratched surface surrounded by a golden rim smudged with fingerprints. Most people wouldn’t look twice at it, probably thinking it was a piece of junk. I didn’t even wear it in or outside the flat and hardly even used it to check the time, using items of technology such as my phone or laptop instead. And yet just having it around provided a sense of comfort, so that when I no longer heard its faint clicking and instead saw its hand twitching weakly, I felt a pang inside.

Why was it that I was so moved by these items losing their function? They seemed so insignificant. Financially they were of minute value. But their sentimental worth was huge.

I found the watch when I was in Australia, having met up with my sister for a road trip up the East Coast. We spent a night in a hostel in Byron Bay, where it was attached to the base of the bed above me. For some reason it really caught my interest, and I lay in bed just looking at it. I knew that it had probably been left there unintentionally, and that I should probably give it into reception in case someone returned for it. But another part of me wondered if it had been left there on purpose, as a ‘gift’ from one traveller to another. In the end, I took it with me. At first I felt quite bad for proclaiming it as my own – had I not technically just stolen something? But I later came to believe that I really had been meant to take it.

A few months later I was in Canada, on my first proper solo backpacking trip, with the watch strapped securely to my left wrist. On my first full day I went to see Niagara Falls. As a girl used to the countryside over the city, my arrival in Toronto had been pretty overwhelming and I was still not quite at ease with the whole ‘going-it-alone’ process. On the bus back, we passed a sprawling lawn decorated with a flowerbed cultivated into the words ‘School of Horticulture’. The words rang a bell but I wasn’t sure why. I absent-mindedly looked at ‘my’ watch to check the time, only to fully comprehend what the tiny writing on its face said: ‘Niagara Parks Commission –  School of Horticulture’.

Excitement shot up inside me. It was a bit like the feeling you get when you finally crack the answer to a difficult question – it’s often at a time when you aren’t really thinking about it and instead the answer suddenly comes to you just like that, causing a feeling of accomplishment and disbelief. Despite the seemingly obvious word ‘Niagara’ (and image of a maple leaf), never before had I associated the watch with Canada. The overly-imaginative girl inside me began to believe it was a sign; the watch had indeed been left for me and I’d been destined to come here all along, to continue the journey that its previous owner had begun, and perhaps other owners before him/her. I didn’t want to accept the high possibility that it had just been pure coincidence. Before arriving I’d had doubts about my reasoning and ability to travel alone, but now my trip seemed to have a greater purpose, and any doubts were washed away, all thanks to a boring old watch.

The story behind the body spray isn’t as memorable. I bought it in a ‘Canada Drugs’ store a few weeks into the trip, simply because (I was increasingly conscious of my lack of showering and) it was cheap, to the extent in fact that it was almost tacky (‘Mystical – Our Version of Fantasy Britney Spears’) But it had a nice smell – like candyfloss. Whenever its fragrance filled the air after returning home, the fumes would transform my mind back to little moments from the trip where the aroma had been present: moments of joy and excitement; friendship and romance; sadness and frustration. It seems pretty fascinating, when you think about it, how powerful this sense can be for stimulating certain emotions.

From that trip onwards, the watch went on to become for me that special ‘thing’ that many people have and always treasure. It’s normally a cuddly toy that one can snuggle with for comfort or childhood nostalgia, a special stone that acts as someone’s lucky charm, a poem written by a loved one, or a piece of jewellery passed down through a family generation. But for me, it was a plain old watch – an item that only I as the owner could understand the personal significance of. The watch is often a feature in my travel photos, yet few will probably pay much attention to it, viewing it as having only a practical purpose. But it’s the personal experiences surrounding such random objects that make them so special and worth holding onto. They are a gateway to a meadow of memories.

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It’s fair to say I can get a bit OCD about collecting souvenirs though. And by ‘souvenirs’ I don’t mean t-shirts or mugs bought from a shop at the airport, baring the country’s flag. When I returned home from Canada and reluctantly began unpacking, jumbled together in a plastic bag at the bottom of my bag was a bunch of travel tickets and scrunched-up receipts from certain Canadian shops; dog-eared tour brochures and ripped maps; scraps of paper on which I’d written notes of bus times or the name of a musician I’d heard; pebbles and flattened grass stalks; wrappers and labels from confectionary and drinks specific to that country. I knew it looked slightly OTT, and yet when I discovered later that one of the chocolate wrappers had been put in my bin (mother!) I rushed over in horror to remove it and place it delicately in a box that would later become devoted to travel souvenirs, as if returning an abandoned baby to its cot. Some might say this is the behaviour of a person with worryingly excellent stalking potential, but fresh from the trip I was just so desperate to cling onto every memory.  Each random item took me back to experiences that I wanted to remember, either because they made me feel proud, happy, amused or curious.

Now I’m a little more relaxed when it comes to my souvenir-hoarding, by that meaning I’ve removed the presence of food-related memoirs (mainly because it just makes you crave something you can’t access in your own country). But I stand by the other assortments, curious as to whether, looking through them again in 40 years, they would spark a recollection of some personal event or emotion. I think on the whole, the weirder one’s collection of souvenirs, the more interesting stories they have to tell. It’s fair enough for someone to return home with a load of expensive items from Duty Free, or famous gifts from the Tourist Office shop, but it’s unlikely that these items will provide a special memory of a place. Furthermore, everyone can take a photo of one famous amazing site, but photographs alone can’t necessarily remind one of a unique memory related to it.

You might be wondering how I managed to keep a 75ml can of body spray going for two and a half years. I think that sub-consciously  I was conserving it, not wanting to finish it because that would mean the ending of a tie to certain memories. And so when there was nothing left in that can it was briefly a sad moment, because it appeared to reflect the loss of a link. Likewise, seeing the watch sit silent seemed to signal the end of something, as if a chapter had been closed. Canada was the story I’d been forced to stop reading early because an upcoming degree required other commitments,  and I was reluctant to forget the storyline and the characters completely. The spritzes of spray in the months after acted as a reminder; snippets from the plot I’d immersed myself in. Whilst I had fantastic stories to tell from countries elsewhere afterwards, Canada continued to top the list for the book I found hardest to put down. Now that the scent would no longer hover through the air and the watch no longer tick along, it was as if there were no more words to read –  it was time to accept that, two and a half years on, the trip was officially in the past and no longer a new, glossy book on my memory shelf.

Of course, this doesn’t at all mean that the memories are gone forever. But when one places so much sentimental value on an object, it is easy to feel that a connection to an experience has been weakened in some way. Some people might think trying to maintain strong attachments to travel memories through the form of objects is lame. But what’s wrong with trying to retain a nostalgic association, if the experience really meant something to you? I don’t think people should feel embarrassed about holding onto certain mementoes from a trip because they might seem pointless, unfashionable or weird to others. At the end of the day, it was your personal experience and only you can understand the sentimental worth of something.  Hold on to anything that made you feel anything, because then in later years you at least give yourself a chance to reflect and remember.

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Relevant links: Souvenir Finder

Travel & New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve been studying in London for almost three years. The more that I’ve gone home or gone travelling in this time, the more I’ve realised how life in London is so rigid. Every day I walk the same route to university, or the library, and every day I see the same scenes: businessmen in suits storming along the pavements, phone pressed to their ear, frowning with impatience as they deliver an order to someone whilst frantically waving their arms at a taxi; women in pencil skirts and high heels gossiping with their co-workers about that lady who works on reception, Starbucks lattes in hand, handbags perched on their lower arms pretentiously. Their lives seem so ordered – everyday they must go through this same routine. Some of my friends aspire to have this lifestyle when they graduate. They want the smart work clothes and the City jobs. But to me it just epitomises stress and restriction – something I don’t want to feel on graduating from university at the age of 22. Yes, it may also involve lots of money, but are these people actually happy? Are they content with the thought that this same daily routine may be their life for the next 30 years or more?

One day, I decided to walk home a different route from the library. It took a little longer than my normal route, but in doing so I discovered different sights and sounds, and that made it worth it. There were fewer people in suits and ties shouting down phones, fewer taxi beeps and red buses, no men outside tube stations trying to hand me leaflets I didn’t want. Instead I walked along quiet cobbled streets past quaint little private wine bars playing music, my route decorated with planted shrubs and couples walking hand in hand. It was a refreshing change. ‘Why be boring and go the normal route as always?’ I thought. The walk reinforced my idea that after university, there is no essential need to follow one path. Instead, one can be spontaneous, find a starting project, and go from there, seeing where it takes them. There are so many options, so why not start exploring them?

A key motive of this mindset of mine comes from my time in Iceland. My night in Selfoss was the last I’d have on my own before staying with a host in Reykjavík for a week. My plan the next day was to head back to Reykjavík and spend the day wondering around before going to meet my host. I could go visit a few of the museums I hadn’t been to, and maybe check my emails for the first time since arriving, in case someone had contacted me about something important. It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

In the morning I woke early to catch my 8.30 bus, dressing in jeans and normal trainers. The sun was out again. It was a shame my plans for the day involved being inside. I sat down on the kerb near the bus stop, leaning my weight on my backpack, and going over what I’d done so far whilst here. It seemed like a lot for four days – national parks, whale-watching, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes. I hadn’t been to all of the key areas, but the list seemed decent enough.

Suddenly a bus arrived around the corner. It was headed to Landmannalaugar, a place I hadn’t seen but had heard lots about. A couple next to me walked over to it with their backpacks. I watched them go, feeling curious. In my jeans pocket was my dog-eared bus passport. I’d paid a lot of money for it, and it hadn’t been completely used up. Landmannalaugar was one of its valid destinations. I sat upright and looked over at the bus again. The driver was stood outside, resting his head against the side in the direction of the sun, eyes closed. I was tempted to go, and there didn’t seem to be any reason not to, especially not financial. ‘But you already decided you’d go back to Reykjavik, and you’re not dressed for hiking,’ a voice in my head said. I slouched down again.

Then I thought about my plans for the day. Did I really want to be in an urban area, when I could be outside in a rural landscape? Was I really bothered if anyone had contacted me? Did I really want to wonder around a museum when I could do this anytime in London? I imagined my dad watching me now, and how boring he’d think I was. So I got on my feet, picked up my backpack and walked over to the bus. As I buckled my seatbelt and the bus got moving in the opposite direction to which I’d originally intended, I felt an almost rebellious sense of excitement.

The journey to Landmannalaugar takes a few hours. Most of that seems to be spent driving over gravel tracks as you get further into mountain terrain. You’ll pass the proud Mt. Hekla at one point. The ‘thud thud bang’ of the bus as it manoeuvres over the rocky surface, jolting you upwards every now and then, makes you feel like you’re making your way over a minefield. It’s amazing that the tyres don’t get punctured. Every so often you’ll think they have when the bus pauses, and for a second you’ll fear that you’re stranded. But fear not – it’s just the bus pulling over for another vehicle, and you’ll see the other driver looking nervous and sucking in their cheeks as if trying to create extra space on the thin tracks. The views will be quite unexciting for a while, as the bus twists it ways slowly around corners and up steep hills. Reading my guidebook to get some inspiration for something to do in my three hours, I soon felt queasy from the constant jolts and turns.

Then just as it feels like your head is forever going to be filled with the sounds of squeaks and rattles, and dusty gravel is all you’ll see for the rest of your life, a wave of soft green rises up into view. On your right you’ll see the idyllic sight of Lake Frostastaðavatn. Its calm face is lined with faint wrinkles and around it, conditioned by the air’s freshness, lie layers of soft brown tones of hair, primped by bounces from its natural character. From here the bus winds its way along twisty paths and splurges through a river crossing to take you to the campsite. People on the bus start collecting their hiking sticks and supplies together, as Landmannalaugar is the starting base for the 55km Laugavegur hiking trail to Pórsmörk.

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I got off the bus with no plan, but as I went to fetch my walking boots and another hoody from my backpack, the lack of organisation felt strangely nice. There was a tall mountain in view, and so I made my way there. Bláhnúkur mountain is 940m high, and very dusty. As I started my ascent I felt a bit like the bus, pulling over cautiously to let those coming down pass. It was so windy, but you have to keep looking down at your feet to make sure you don’t slip. I stopped halfway up the mountain, thinking I might go blind if I headed any higher. The views are wonderful. Lava fields lie in front of an patch-worked array of pastel-coloured mountains, tinged with soft greens and browns that run so smoothly like oil on a painting. The scenery here was a big contrast from most other places I’d seen in Iceland, evoking warmth and tenderness rather than cold wildness.

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As I stood gazing at the views, amongst rubbing my eyes free of dust, a girl my age came up behind me, and we got chatting. She was French, and this was her first time travelling alone. We ended up spending the remaining hour and a half together, walking over to the hot springs where people bathed lazily, as sheep grazed around them. She was the first person I’d met on the trip who I’d actually like to keep in contact with, not just because I felt I should after spending a few hours with her. And I wouldn’t have met her had I not jumped on that bus.

The day had brought me a new visual perspective to Iceland, allowing me to see a different side to the country, just like taking the different route home from the library allowed me to see a different view of London. The day had signified freedom and impulsiveness, and my trip had been replenished as a result. I knew that had I simply gone on to Reykjavík as originally planned, the day would be nowhere near as interesting and fulfilling.

If people were more spontaneous in life, they’d get so much more out of it. As we approach 2014, my New Year’s Resolution is not really new as such. I just want to keep exploring the unknown and not play safe, but take a new opportunity that arises and see where it takes me.

 

Travel & Trainers: An Evening Run in Iceland

It’s fair to say that in the past year I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with running. I’ve always been a ‘natural’ runner, lucky to grow up in a rural area that allowed me to put on my trainers and run off somewhere without a care in the world. My first competitive memory is of me breaking away from the pack in a sports day race at primary school, only to be overtaken by a boy in the last 50m. Throughout school I enjoyed racing, simply because I found it fun – the adrenaline rush at the start of the race, the burning thighs, the splash of mud, the desperate sprint finish. Away from races, running simply provided an opportunity to be outside observing nature. It made me feel happy and healthy.

Growing up I was fortunate enough not to develop an injury that would prevent me from being active for a sustained period of time, despite taking part in Modern Pentathlon from the age of 12. That was perhaps because I didn’t take the sport seriously enough to allow this to happen – living miles from anywhere meant training intensely would have been an immense ask on my parents both in terms of money and time, and I didn’t want that. Rather than joining an athletics club, I did most of my training for the running phase myself. To me, the sport simply provided social opportunities and a personal goal to work towards. But in my late teens, I stopped enjoying it as much. It had become a sport full of pushy parents, with their emphasis seeming to be on results and winning. This new pressurising environment rubbed off on me, to the extent that going away for a weekend to compete no longer felt fun.

After starting university, I dropped the other four sports to focus mainly on running as the sport to supplement my studies. Attending more structured and coached sessions soon made me regret having as a young teenager turned down offers by scouts to join their athletics club and chosen instead to stick with all five sports equally. Competing in races solely for running, rather than as part of a multi sport, was something that I’d missed. In making running my main sport, I once again had found the perfect balance of fun and competition – a serious hobby that I genuinely really enjoyed. Running brought so many positive elements: a way to meet people; a way to de-stress; a way to keep in shape; a way to have a personal goal. I didn’t have to think about as much as I had with the other sports: commanding a new horse over a course of show jumps; focussing carefully on my sights during shooting; anticipating and responding to the actions of my opponent in fencing; preserving a good technique while swimming…Or at least, what I did have to think about didn’t feel like a task – it just came naturally. And running was such an easy thing to do –  all you needed was a pair of trainers and some motivation, the latter being something I’d always had.

In second year I was in the best shape I’d ever been in – the shape I would have probably been in a few years before had I focussed solely on running. Making massive improvements in my times felt brilliant, and with the BUCS Cross-Country Champs a few months away, I was confident that I’d perform significantly better than the year before. Whilst it wouldn’t be anything remarkable by national standards, it would still be a great personal achievement. I worked super hard in training, pounding the track and dashing up the hills, all in a quest to become better. In mind, body and spirit, I was feeling fantastic.

Then one day a pain that I’d never felt before showed up in my right leg. After a week of rest I ran again while at home for Christmas, only to have to stop. I couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that I’d pulled up on this route. The pain continued to present itself everytime I ran, but I told myself it would go away. I was running so well, I couldn’t stop now. In mid January I winced my way through a two mile cross-country race, only to ironically finish in my best position of the season. The pain persisted as I walked back to the train station, and it never left. Every step I took was greeted with a sharp sting in the back of my lower leg, and my bone felt tender to touch. I’d never experienced anything like this before. Walking – something I’d done everyday since I was able to stand on two feet myself – was no longer something I could do without thinking about it. I’d pulled muscles before, but this felt totally alien. Walking home from uni a few days later, tears fell down my cheeks as I realised this was a serious issue that, as long as I continued running, was not simply going go to go away.

A week later was the day of the championships. The day before them I got hold of some crutches to help me rest my leg, following a doctor’s assumption that I’d picked up a stress fracture. I was persuaded by team mates to travel up to the race regardless, having already bought my train ticket, and eventually I gave in. I’d never had to be so dependent on other people to help me. Having people hold doors for me, carry my bags, pay for my bus ticket and so on made me feel useless. Seeing everyone warm up in our team colours brought a sting to my chest. I’d been so excited for this day. Of all the national competitions I’d gone to for pentathlon, none had I looked forward to as much as I had this. The course was one of the muddiest I’d ever seen, yet I still felt pangs of jealousy as I saw my team mates crossing the finish line.

Six miserable weeks later I came off the crutches, and the pain when I walked had gone. I felt like a bird released from captivity, free to resume its natural gift of flying. Not being able to be as mobile and independent as I’d always taken for granted had made me retreat inside a hole of frustration and embarrassment. In my first seminar without crutches, I spoke more than I had in the past six weeks of that class. In being able to walk on two feet again with no pain, I was back in my comfort zone, and I’d re-found my voice.

Two weeks later I couldn’t wait any longer, and had to run again. I felt gross – my legs had atrophied slightly and I pinched new fat around my hips. But above all, I just missed it. Watching my team perform at an athletics competition made me fidgety – I wanted to be on the start line again, flooded with adrenaline. But when I put on my trainers for the first time since the January race, I felt nervous. I went for a slow jog on the grass to test the leg, feeling cautious. There was no pain. I breathed a sigh of relief. But my chest felt tight just from a gentle loop around a football pitch. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be back in no time,’ I told myself.

But of course, that was just wishful thinking. Training sessions were restricted to just doing the warm up jog and no speed work. I’d never had to worry before about taking things slow when it came to running, and I soon found myself getting impatient. Watching people do 400m sets on the track from the side, knowing I’d have been up there with them a few months earlier, was hard to watch. Training with my team mates became less fun, as seeing them speed off effortlessly in front of me made me feel demoralised. With exams then demanding my attention, I told myself that over summer I would get back in shape. The summer sunshine meant there was no excuse not to be outside running. But my determination to reclaim my old fitness only impeded my recovery, as I attempted to do too much too soon. Hints of pain re-emerged, meaning I had to rest more in between each run than I hoped. With increased devotion to post-run stretching came a sense of desperation.

But the recovery wasn’t only difficult physically. Alongside the gasping breaths after attempting sets I’d have previously coped with fine came tears of frustration and self doubt. Running was no longer something I didn’t have to think about – every step was placed with anxiety, as I anticipated a burst of pain in my leg. I felt like something was holding me back, and realised that it was fear. I was scared of damaging something so valuable to me again, and having to return to what had been a lonely state of immobility. It was a complicated injury, not caused by one single significant action, but an accumulation of impact pressure that had built up over time. Like an alcoholic who didn’t know his limits, I felt like I didn’t know mine either. But instead of drinking more to test myself, I let my liquid of lust drip away, as the potential risks of pain and feelings of incompetence reduced my desire for the end result. Feeling like I had to think about what I was doing had made running cease to be an enjoyment, and instead a constant indicator of inadequacy. My confidence had vanished, and the motivation to run that had previously come so naturally to me had gone. Feeling disillusioned, excuses began to be made and my frequency of running dropped.

Then I went to Iceland in August, and my trainers were stuffed into my backpack. It’s always my intention that I’ll go for two or three runs during a trip, as it’s a great way to observe scenery and everyday life. On coming back from the Westmann Islands I was spending an evening in Selfoss. Its main attraction is probably the glacial Ölfusa which, as Iceland’s largest river, runs through the town to the east of the mountain Ingólfsfjall. The bright blue river flows fast as it gets closer to the town centre, whipping up whirlpools and creating a constant ‘shhhhh’ sound as it surges downstream. The sun was out when I arrived, and I sat on the banks of the river eating cheap cake from the local Netto. My food the day before had consisted of a cheese sandwich and carrot sticks. My jeans were looser and I was hungry. But as the wind picked up my hunger became directed towards something else. The sugar from the cake had filled me with energy, and I felt impatient. Suddenly I had a real desire to move and be constantly active. I’d been on only two runs in the two weeks leading up to the trip, panting through three miles and feeling fed up after finishing. I’d gone running because I’d felt that I should, not because I wanted to. But today was different – the rush of the river had stimulated in me a craving to run that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

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In the early evening I put on my trainers and stretched outside my hostel, taking deep breaths. But the difference was that they were breaths of excitement, rather than anxiety. ‘I’ll just go for a short jog along the river,’ I thought to myself as I set off. I felt no pain in my leg, and ran comfortably for 25 minutes to the suspension bridge where I’d thought I would stop. My breathing was slightly laboured, but then I spotted a path leading off. ‘I can go a few minutes more,’ I thought. Gravel crunched under my trainers as I ran past a sign named ‘Hellisskog’ into a cosy section of small fir trees, where little wooden bridges offered different choices of direction. I randomly chose one that led me along a quiet gravel track. I had no idea where I was going, but I felt great. I was running with a fluidity that I hadn’t felt since before I got injured.

10 minutes later my legs started to ache a little, hinting that they wanted to stop. Had I been at home or in Regents Park at this point, I would have listened to my body and gladly given in. But here I felt curious about what was ahead, and for the first time in a while I stopped thinking about my leg and just ran, concentrating on the views around me instead. 10 minutes later I turned up at a grassy mound of rock. A sign called it ‘Stori Hellir’, translating as ‘the big cave’. It’s allegedly haunted by a man who hung himself there after suffering a broken heart. But as I bounded up the grass to the top of the cave, I felt nothing but pure elation. Strong winds buffeted my face, but with a revitalising energy that made me grin from ear to ear. Ingólfsfjall with its prominent presence looked down at me proudly. I felt like I’d just finished a marathon  – a true sense of mental and physical accomplishment.

The natural monument I was standing on wasn’t even that special, but to me it served as a huge landmark. It signified progress and pleasure. The spirited drive of the river had spurred me on, and the curiosity that comes with being in an unknown area had made me go further than I not only expected to, but would have had I been running in familiar surroundings. The new scenery had distracted me so that instead of constantly thinking about how well I was doing, I was picking up positive emotions from environmental stimuli, which in turn made me feel good as I was running. By the time I got back to my hostel, I’d run around four miles in total. Whilst there’s nothing significant about that distance, it was the first run in 2013 that I’d enjoyed. My motivation to run had returned, and it was thanks to being in travel mode.

This experience made me realise that I’d been approaching getting back into running with the wrong attitude. Just like the pushy parents from my pentathlon days, my improved level of running had begun to emphasise results and performance. Upon having to stop, I hadn’t processed that before I could get competitive again, I’d have to work my way up from a more modest base. By putting pressure on myself to return to my pre-injury standard, I’d forgotten the core principle that had always previously governed my view towards running – the idea of it being fun.

Now I’m in third year and am still not able to run as frequently or intensively as I’d like to, partly because of work and partly because of little protests from my calf muscle now and again. But I’m simply grateful for the fact that I can run in the first place. My brief period of immobility made me feel so much more grateful for the fact that I’m able to move my legs at all.  But that evening run in Selfoss highlighted why having this ability should be something to appreciate and enjoy, rather than use as a harsh measure of personal quality. If anyone asked me for advice on getting motivated to run again, I’d tell them to go travelling, and let curiosity carry their legs further.

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.

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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.

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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Waiting for a Spark: Skógar & Skaftafell National Park

My first day in Iceland had left me intrigued by the paradox of the country’s landscape, with its archaic features on a youthful base. The pessimism that I’d felt at the beginning of the trip had reduced slightly, but I was still unconvinced about the prospect of seeing anything here that would blow me away. I really believed having to remove Skaftafell National Park from my itinerary would take the spark out of the trip. Discovering that there was no accommodation left had produced the same feeling of disappointment when one realises their crush isn’t at the party; the balloons had deflated and the question ‘Is it even worth staying?’ momentarily popped up.

On the evening of my second day I was heading for Skógar, home of the famous Skógafoss, and the beginning of the extended hiking route to Landmannalaugar. I’d decided to attempt to walk half the 23km route to Pórsmörk on my third day, telling myself that I’d tag along with fellow walkers so I wasn’t alone. ‘It’ll be fine,’ I kept telling myself as I sat in the bus station reading my guide book. But the words ‘tough terrain’ and ‘bad weather’ jutted out from the page like metal barriers from a concrete road, threatening to block my progress. I wasn’t optimistic about getting through them successfully.

With 15 minutes to go before my departure I sat slumped in a chair, reluctant to get up. The couple next to me stood up to catch their bus, leaving a pamphlet on the seat behind them. I absent-mindedly cast my eyes over it, then suddenly came alive and like a poor beggar who’d just spotted a pile of gold, snatched it up excitedly. It was promoting a day tour to Skaftafell National Park. In other words, I’d be able to visit it without having to worry about finding a place to sleep for the night. I held the pamphlet in my hands like it was a precious gift that I was scared of damaging – Christmas had arrived early, but at a high price. Could I really justify spending the equivalent of £80 on one day tour, when I had the rest of my budget to think about? I tapped my foot on the floor impatiently, glancing hesitantly at the clock every 15 seconds or so. Then with five minutes to go before my bus arrived, I got up to buy the ticket. Spending so much money in one transaction had never filled me with so much relief. As I hoisted my backpack over my shoulder I felt revitalised, as if the trip was finally beginning. Something inside told me this was a decision I wouldn’t regret.

Today’s bus driver was a strawberry-blond haired man with short chubby legs and a goofy face, his childish looks only made more bizarre by the punky ring dangling from his left ear. He reminded me a little of the character ‘Wormtail’ in Harry Potter, and I decided to nickname him ‘Timmy’, laughing to myself as he waddled along the bus asking each passenger where they were from, before attempting to speak a sentence in their language.

The evening sun cast a healthy glow over the hills as our journey commenced, bringing new life to the land. I’d heard that the love interest was actually about to set off to the party, and my excitement was reflected in the radiance of the land’s complexion. A couple of hours later a giant cake of a mountain came into view on my left, its frosty icing oozing over the chocolate sponge of the land. It was a volcanic glacier, and not just any volcanic glacier, but that of Eyjafjallajökull: the sweet treat that caused so much trouble in 2010 when it exploded and sent clouds of dusty flour and hot sauce into the air, turning people everywhere crazy for ruining their European party plans. Knowing that I was seeing the sight of such controversy through my own eyes made my tummy bubble up in a frenzy, as if I too was a volcano about to erupt. The boy I wanted to see at the party had told me he was on his way.

About 20 minutes before Skógar, you’ll then see out of your window the gorgeous sight of Seljalandsfoss, a tall waterfall with wispy columns of water that seem to fall in slow motion, resembling flakes of icing sugar pouring into a mixing bowl.

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As we approached Skógar I realised that I didn’t actually have a map of the village, and hoped my hostel wouldn’t be too difficult to find. But you can guarantee that you’ll have no problems finding anywhere in this tiny place. ‘Village’ was too generous a term. As I stepped off the bus and said bye to Timmy, the only sound I could hear was crashing water in the distance. The hostel and its campsite are situated about 400m from the famous waterfall, and as soon as I’d checked in I bounded over to have a look. The sight of people setting up tents and lighting stoves opposite the river Skógá made me feel warm inside, reminding me of family holidays as a child. A bed of black sand welcomed my walking boots, and my face was painted with the spray of the water dropping 62m from the top. If you climb the steps going up the hill beside the waterfall, there’s a great lookout point from halfway up. Unlike at Seljalandsfoss, the water looks so strong that you almost feel if you were to jump out with your arms open, you’d be able to grip it like a thick piece of rope and reach the ground securely.

I went back to the hostel, only to find that the three American women who’d been on my Golden Circle tour the day before were sleeping in the same dorm. Hearing them whine about their sore feet made me feel relieved I wasn’t going to have to tag along with them to Pórsmörk the next day. I went for a shower to escape them for a bit, breathing a lazy sigh of content as I turned on the tap. The water gushed out and I sprang back in surprise, overwhelmed by the strong smell of rotten eggs. For about a minute I stood in the nude awkwardly, looking around my cubicle as if that would provide some sort of answer, before realising that this smell is normal for showers in Iceland, because of the sulphur in the springs where the water comes from. After a few minutes you get used to it…

There was no need for an alarm clock the next morning, as sunlight through the window woke me. I jumped out of my bunk and got dressed eagerly, hoping I wouldn’t wake the (snoring) Americans. There was a fresh snap in the air as I headed out to see Skógafoss again. After absorbing its cool vapour I climbed the steps all the way to the top of the waterfall. Your quads will burn after but it’s worth it for the view. Horses and sheep grazed together peacefully on the hill opposite, with the blue sky pouring a faint rainbow over them. If you climb over the stile into the field where the famous hiking route to Pórsmörk begins, you’ll see Eyjafjallajökull poking above a hill. I couldn’t get over how close I was to it.

Skógafoss, Iceland

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The tour bus stopped specially in Skógar to pick me up. When I saw it pull up I breathed a sigh of relief, as if I’d just seen my crush’s car, having originally feared he wasn’t going to show afterall. The bus was pretty busy and I took the middle seat on the back row. A young English couple sat next to me on the left, with the girl moaning about the lack of WiFi, saying she hoped the journey wouldn’t take much longer. As we drove past acres of lava fields, I couldn’t understand how she was more interested in looking at a screen than outside the window. On my right was a complete contrast, with two ladies from Hong Kong excitedly taking photos of pretty much everything…We stopped at one point to walk onto the lava fields. The rocks are an earthy-green colour and resemble bubbles dotted with holes – a continuous land of Mint Chocolate Aeros! It was hard to imagine waves of hot lava streaming ferociously over the land.

An hour later the bus turned off for the tourist centre of Skaftafell National Park, part of the huge Vatnajökull National Park. The love interest had got out of his car and was walking up the driveway. Whilst the girl next to me slumped back in her seat with a bored expression, I unbuckled my seat belt eagerly like a little kid arriving at the seaside thinking something might be missed by not getting off the bus first. I had four hours to myself in the park, and spent the first half it walking the approximately 2km route to Svartifoss (the Black Falls). I had a new energy in my legs, and strode effortlessly up the pebbly path, overtaking panting walkers who stared at me in envious wonder. The landscape had changed drastically from my first day touring the Golden Circle – the tidy paths were lined with green bushes, the clumpy vegetation of the area giving it more of a Mediterranean feel. Rustic signs pointed in all directions to other little nooks and crannies. Sandy deposits sat beside a calmly-flowing stream, which then seeped languidly into a waterfall. There was something very serene about the water here, as if it was in no rush to get anywhere. The landscape had softened.

Svartifoss comes into view about 600m before you reach it – the whiteness of the water acting as a lighthouse amongst the green ocean of vegetation. Once you arrive in front of the falls it’s as if you’ve descended into a gloomy Church; tall dark walls of basalt surround you, the columns hanging rigidly like pipes on a giant organ, standing to attention as the waterfall delivers its solemn sermon. It’s this bizarre structure of the rock, rather than the waterfall itself, that makes Svartifoss so popular with visitors. Sit for a while and admire the view.

Svartifoss

I’d saved the best view, however, till last. Skaftafellsjökull is an easy 30 minute walk from the tourist centre, and as the air gets a little colder on approaching it, so too does the anticipation build. In sight comes a mouth-watering mess of melted ice-cream decorated with chocolate curls – the glacier, dusted with ash, sits comfortably between two hills before a placid lake dotted with mini icebergs. Signs warned about loose sand, but I wasn’t looking at my feet as I trod, mouth open, over the black sand, as if heading towards a pool of treasure. The solid ice in the water stood still like a collection of gargoyles, with the only noise around me being the occasional lap of water against the ‘shore’. I walked up a crumbly path and perched on a rock, feeling like a newly-inaugurated Queen on a throne surveying my kingdom down below. The Prince I’d been waiting for at the party had arrived and made his presence felt with a ‘bang’, as if someone had just pulled a partycracker inside my chest.

Finally I’d experienced the feeling I’d been waiting for – the skip of a heart beat and the lack of words. And yet what was so interesting was the fact that the view in front of me wasn’t even one that could be described as ‘beautiful’. It was too messy for that, the surrounding colours too dull. But not all boys are perfectly formed, and yet still have something about them that makes them so attractive. What the view was was simply stunning. It was the untidiness of the glacier that made it so marvellous – a true natural wonder. I smiled to myself a genuine smile that Iceland hadn’t seen yet. “This is why I’m here,” I said aloud. I laid my head back on the rock feeling completely fulfilled. Nothing was happening in front of me – I was looking at nothing but a mere canvas of idle nature – but I didn’t want to leave that spot. The spark had been lit and it felt like the party had only just begun.

Back on the bus, the English couple had thankfully moved to the front, but even their underwhelmed attitudes couldn’t have rubbed off on mine. I was smitten and nothing would change how I felt. The two ladies from Hong Kong sat on either side of me, nudging me excitedly when they spotted a huge rainbow out of the window. One of them offered me a green-tea flavoured biscuit and, upon asking where I was from began to say, “The English accent is very -” before nodding her head sharply with pursed lips and a frown to demonstrate what she was trying to say. A few seats in front of me an American guy tried to flirt with the brunette Swede sat opposite him, casually taking hold of her camera to look at her photos, and telling her about his Masters degree. After a few minutes she looked quite bored, and turned to chat to the older German man next to her who looked like he had a lot of money. American man leaned in, desperate to get involved in the conversation, before realising he’d blown it and sitting back in his seat in sulky disappointment.

Our bus stopped briefly in the small town of Vik (full name ‘Vík í Myrdal’), which is the most southerly village in Iceland with a lovely beach. The light was dimmer outside but the sky was still a fantastic blue, casting a tranquil aura over the land. Perch yourself on the pile of rocks leading out to the sea and admire the Reynisdrangar in the distance. The ‘troll rocks’ are so named from a myth that states they resemble former trolls who drowned after taking their boats out into the wild sea. The village of Vik is tiny, but if you’re planning a road trip along the south coast, it’s worth taking advantage of the hostel and staying one night, just to embrace its romantic charm.

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As the bus dropped me off back at Skógar, I wished my friends from Hong Kong a pleasant trip and disembarked onto a land of sweet content. Eyjafjallajökull caught the sunset beautifully and greeted me with a warm glow. It was the perfect evening to end the perfect day. My instinct had been right – the tour had been worth every penny, even if I would have to spend the rest of the week living off cheap biscuits and raw carrotsticks. I walked up the road to catch a sight of the Westmann Islands in the distance. The state of being lovestruck was making me daydream and I didn’t even notice at first when a car pulled over to ask if I was wanting a lift somewhere. The islands lay basking in a golden haze of sun. I would head there the next day, recharged by this new spark that had given me a greater zest for the country and what it had to offer.

 

 

Iceland’s Golden Circle: First Impressions vs Land Expressions

I’d been curious about Iceland for a while before I visited it in August 2013, simply because I knew so little about it. It seemed like such a quiet country with its remote location and modest geopolitical influence, yet so loud too with its unique ecological landscape capable of causing so much trouble –  a reserved teenager constantly bubbling up with hormones of fire and ice that could be released at the most unexpected moment. After booking a cheap flight in June with no specific plans apart from to see a whale and climb a volcano, I received further inspiration after glancing over some of my late paternal Grandfather’s memoirs from WW2. Keflavík served as an air base for the Royal Air Force, and on a break from service, Grandpa Jack had gone on a road trip with two friends around the south. A simple sketch showed the places he’d visited, and I made it my aim to retrace his footsteps. But I chose not to read his descriptions too much, wanting to go there with a fresh opinion. As a result, I had no idea what to expect from Iceland. People who had been before would tell me about the lack of things: the lack of people; the lack of industry; the lack of activity outside Reykjavík, leaving me wondering what exactly there was there.

The first week of my two-week trip would be spent touring around the south of the island. Despite only being set to last a week, this part of the trip took a lot of organising. There are no railways in Iceland, so people get around by bus, car or sometimes plane. Reykjavík Excursions is the country’s most popular tour operator, offering both transport services and guided tours.  Their bus passports are designed for independent travellers who want to see many places rather than stay in one area. But the strict bus schedule made it hard to co-ordinate some of my plans, meaning on some occasions that I might miss a bus connection by 10 minutes. I momentarily considered renting a car, before deciding this would be too expensive and more stressful than fun. Car-pooling websites are great but in my case I had no luck finding anyone heading my way at the same time. These transport issues, combined with accommodation options, made things pretty complex.  In the summer months hostels get full very quickly, leaving only expensive hotels or campsites as an option. I didn’t intend to lug a tent around with me for two weeks, but some places I really wanted to visit either didn’t have hostels in the vicinity, or they were full. Finding couchsurfing hosts outside Reykjavik is a laughable concept, and consequently I had to sacrifice some destinations from my itinerary. One of these was Skaftafell National Park.

All these peer reviews and practical complexities led to me feeling unsure of what to expect from the trip. But I wasn’t just unsure of how good it would be; I also wasn’t sure how I’d get on alone. Watching documentaries and reading about Iceland highlighted how the sudden change in weather and unpredictable terrain in isolated landscapes could catch hikers off guard. ‘What if that happened to me?’ I kept thinking anxiously. I knew I had to be realistic about what I could do alone, unable to rely on the prospect of meeting a travel companion whilst there. As I packed my backpack I felt more than I ever had before that actually, my opportunities were going to be limited because of travelling alone.

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On August 15th my plane was received reluctantly by a bed of grey clouds, and my faint sense of pessimism was reinforced.  Raincoats rustled as tourists boarded a bus that would take us to Reykjavík. I looked out of the window, the rivers of raindrops that flowed down the glass imitating my declining mood. I’d hoped to be instantly revitalised by a land of youthful vibrancy. Instead the landscape looked so barren and bleak – almost medieval, as if it was still 871 and the Norwegians were arriving. There seemed to be no cultivation whatsoever, the only signs of human intervention being the stone piles that popped up every now and then. ‘There really is nothing going on here,’ I thought to myself, thinking back to what I’d heard my peers say.

My first night would be spent in Reykjavík, and the bus driver directed me to my hostel with perfect English.
“Halló! Ég er frá Englandsi,” I said confidently to the lady on reception. She looked at me blankly so I repeated myself more slowly, but she still looked confused.
“Oh! Englandi” she suddenly exclaimed with a laugh. “Are you learning Icelandic?”
‘I guess not,’ I thought as I laughed with her awkwardly.

The lady let me leave my backpack in reception, and I put on my walking boots and set off to the bus terminal, the rain still pouring. The streets were so quiet, the only real sounds being the occasional splursh of a car’s wheels driving through a puddle. There were hardly any people around, and as I walked to the bus terminal I felt like a kid who’d turned up at a birthday party only to find I’d got the time wrong and it had already finished.

I’d booked an afternoon tour of the Golden Circle for my first day, but it looked like there was no chance of gold appearing in the sky anytime soon. A softly-spoken man in his sixties was our tour guide. His calming voice made me suddenly feel tired, a lack of sleep at the airport from the night before catching up with me. When I woke we were in Haukadulur, a valley home to many hot springs. We were left to explore the area on our own, and I got off the bus groggily only to be startled into life by the strong smell of sulphur from the geysers. Bubbling bogs of hot water hissed at me deviously, daring me to come closer. I managed to avoid falling in their trap and walked towards the famous ‘Strokkur’, which spurts out a huge column of water every 5-7 minutes, teasing tourists who wait with cameras in hand to capture its moment of projection. After two sightings my attention was diverted towards people walking up a stony path to a lookout point, and I followed them tentatively over the slippery mud, picturing myself falling over without a change of clothes. Rainclouds stopped me seeing anything special and I continued to feel quite underwhelmed by the overall landscape as I walked back down to the bus, completely drenched and hoping the driver wouldn’t notice my dirty boots too much.

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Bare fields and the rocky slopes of hills continued to dominate the scenery as we drove onto our next stop. I was starting to feel bored, wondering if this was the only sight I’d see for two weeks. Then we arrived at Gulfoss and my mood lifted immensely. Even if they didn’t have the sheer velocity of Niagara Falls, something about the ‘Golden Falls’ with their continuous gushing of water over a vast area was really captivating. The area was so natural and untouched, contrasting immensely to the commercial-frenzy that one is greeted with at Niagara. There the water collapses into a pool, ending so abruptly, but here the torrents continue to surge onwards as if on some eager journey; different sections of water cascade precariously onto lower levels, but all with the same purpose of mixing together again in the river. From here steam rises up through the narrow ridge like fizz from a potion – a chemical reaction of natural elements. I thought of Grandpa Jack coming here all those years ago and appreciated that the view would have probably been the same back then – an untouched phenomenon that just lets the human eye enjoy what it’s seeing: the satisfying sight of nature running its course.

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We next drove onto Pingvellir National Park, passing a large building on the way which the tour guide in his slow wise voice told us was an old housekeeping school for women, back in the days when “they learned their natural trade.” The bunch of American women sat opposite me gasped in offence, obviously not realising he was being sarcastic. The two Italian men sat behind them on the other hand looked rather approving of the idea. I soon learned that Icelanders are big fans of mythology. The tour guide gently explained how one could tell the weather would improve tomorrow by looking at the change in behaviour of the horses, who he said had a ‘sixth sense’. Icelandic horses are a symbol of pride in the country, famous for their ‘tölt’ which is said to be the most comfortable gait in the world. Groups of all different colours could be seen grazing on the grass, not enclosed by fences but just left to roam freely, completely at one with the land. Efforts to maintain their features are so tight, that once exported, a horse is not allowed to re-enter Iceland. And don’t even think about calling them ‘ponies’…

Pingvellir (pronounced ‘thing-fet-ler’) means ‘Parliament Plains’ – a reflection of the fact that the general assembly of Iceland was established here in 930 until 1798. Through soothing tones the tour guide explained that major events of history had occurred here, meaning that it’s a highly cherished area of the country. I looked out over the huge silver shield of Lake Þingvallavatn, its unperturbed surface reflecting the sun’s arrows of light through the grey clouds. Steam rose from the geysers on the mountains in the distance like smoke from the battlefield. If I closed my eyes I could easily picture such a scene from centuries ago. It’s perhaps its potential for stimulating historical imagination that led to the park being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, 60 years after the Republic of Iceland was declared here in 1944 (a year after my grandfather was in Iceland).

The Eurasian-North American tectonic plates move past each other in South Iceland, with it being estimated that the plate boundaries move apart from one another by 2cm each year. The last earthquake to be caused by such movements was in 2000. At Pingvellir, the two plates split, caused by a burst of pressure that had accumulated over a long time.  The end result is a substantial rift between two large segments of rocky land. I walked through the gap trying to get my head around the concept of walking unassumingly on top of so much underworld activity. Who knew what was going on underneath my feet? I was becoming more and more mesmerised by the paradoxical landscape. There was something so ancient about it, yet so youthful at the same time; an old man with the heart of an 18 year old, or a child wearing the clothes of an 80 year old – I couldn’t decide which way round it was. It was a land constantly undergoing explosions of activity underneath a serene and humble surface; a land storing its poisonous chemicals in a secret cellar, but unable to control their sudden leakage.

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As the bus took us back to Reykjavík, I developed my own meaning behind the tour name of ‘Golden Circle’. Gold can lie undiscovered for years, only to be found and cause hysteria, just like a geyser or earthquake can erupt unexpectedly, causing gasps of surprise. Gold is a pure element found in the earth, and there was something very pure in the sights I saw that day. They were like young princesses who forever maintained their chastity, refusing to be corrupted by the demands of the foreign prince greedy for financial and territorial conquest.

I realised that it’s this fantastical element of Iceland that is making it more and more of a popular destination for tourists. People come here to remind themselves of what nature really is, and in the process are transported back to a time when the environment is left to enthral its audience on its own, without being spoiled by commercial additives. The ‘laissez-faire’ approach adopted by the country’s tourism industry means that the unique value of the subtle landscape may be under-appreciated by some visitors who don’t take the time to really think about what they’re seeing and what it represents. It was such a fresh change to have a day tour that didn’t involve an eccentric guide emphasising through sensationalist language why everyone should be completely astounded by what they were seeing and take lots of photos, before asking for a tip in return for the ‘service’. Instead it was up to the tourists to learn these things by looking at and listening to the land themselves, as it should be.

When my grandfather was in Iceland, there would have been no opportunities for ‘guided tours’ like today. The thought of him discovering these places (perhaps unintentionally) with his friends in his Jeep and being stood in the same place as me made me smile. I wondered whether he too had started with a pessimistic outlook, only to gain greater curiosity and appreciation throughout the duration of the day. I felt bad for feeling so discouraging at the beginning, but I can imagine it’s an emotion that many people experience on first visiting the modest state of Iceland. Just like it takes time to get to really know someone, it takes time to absorb the significance of some things you see here.

I ended the tour feeling not completely blown away by what I had seen, but certainly a lot more intrigued about the country. I was still unsure of how the rest of my trip would go – (would the sun ever shine?!) – but in the space of 10 hours I’d been reminded that sometimes, less really is more. It was the perfect lesson in how unjustified it can prove to be to make first impressions before giving the relevant object a chance to express itself. In my case, the old warrior had risen from his chamber below the ground and shown me that rather than lying dormant as I first believed, he still possessed the same fresh and unpredictable powers of a young soldier. I went to bed determined to be more positive about the rest of my trip, blissfully unaware of just how much better it was going to become.

Disappointing Travel Experiences: When Materialism and Travel Collide

We’ve all had those anti-climactic experiences where we’ve been really looking forward to seeing something, or had high expectations about it, only to feel slightly disappointed afterwards. It’s a common case when travelling – guide books marvel about how wonderful a place is and the websites only show photos taken in the sun. But I’m not just talking about realising that the sights aren’t actually that impressive; sometimes your experience of the people around you can tarnish your views.

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I experienced this feeling after visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. Possibly the country’s most famous place to visit, I decided to go and check it out en route to the airport. My bus left rainy Reykjavík at 9am and we drove through a barren black sea of lava fields, until about 50 minutes later the bright blue water appeared in sight, bringing instant energy to a bleak morning. In a building situated next to the car park, one could store their belongings for a non-returnable fee of 500ISK. The receptionist said “Enjoy your stay” with the same upbeat tone to every customer, as if programmed like a machine.

A return bus journey and ticket to bathe in the hot springs costs 9800ISK from Reykjavik Excursions, but being low on cash and uncertain I’d have enough time to get sufficient bathing value for the price, I decided I would just pay 1600ISK for the Visitor’s Pass once there, which equates to around £8. “You can keep this,” the receptionist said, sliding a loose blue rubber band onto my wrist as the lady next to him patiently dealt with a ditsy customer. “And just come back if you change your mind about bathing.”

As I walked onto the viewing deck and looked over the huge pool, I nearly did. The large baths of blue water sat amongst the mass surroundings of dark lava fields like a rose amongst thorns. The heat radiating from the water was so inviting and there was plenty of space to lounge around daydreaming. The perfect end to a trip, surely? There wasn’t really much you could do with a Visitor’s Pass apart from watch other bathers enviously from this deck, feeling like a bit of a pervert – a sly method to get you paying more. I stood watching the shoots of steam in the distance, the constant swapping of my weight from one foot to the other reflecting the constant changing of my mind.

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Then I was suddenly distracted by the sound of haughty laughter, and looked down to see a whale of a man conversing loudly with his friends in the water about some sort of business matter, waving his champagne glass around carelessly. Right then something told me that my original decision had been the right one. I averted my gaze from his large belly only to see other people behaving in a similar fashion – talking loudly and uttering fake laughs that seemed to epitomise money and privilege.  I found myself asking, ‘Is this what coming here does to people, or is it just these people that it attracts?’

Unfortunately the man’s arrogant laughter continued to fill the air, just as the rain continued to fall. I couldn’t stand hearing anymore, but the ‘Yorkshire Lass’ in me was determined to get as much value out of my entry fee as possible, so I headed downstairs to the cafe to read.  As I purchased a smoothie that would taste purely of diet, the staff stood around looking fed-up. I soon learned the cause of their moods, gritting my teeth as the abrupt deliverance of the question “Is there WiFi here?” continually flooded my ears. Women and teenage girls in designer clothes would then proceed to stare non-stop at their iphones for their remaining stay.

Whilst I don’t own an iphone myself, I’m able to realise how in this day and age, Facebook updates to show off the really cool thing so-and-so just did can’t wait. And of course, working people need to check their emails regularly. But there was something so empty about these people, as if they literally had no essence of human inside them – only a piece of technology for a soul and bank for a heart that constantly churned out money like oxygen.

A few minutes later a member of staff around my age looked bewildered as a customer explained to her that she must make her own latte. The lady finished reeling off her special recipe instructions with a patronising “Thanks, honey.” I looked at her, feeling both stunned and repulsed as she ran her hands through her perfectly conditioned hair, nose in the air as she looked down to scrutinise the finished product. Suddenly her face turned in my direction and I looked down at my scruffy jeans and walking boots, make-up free face reflecting in the window, realising just how odd I must have looked compared to everyone else here. As I stood up to deposit my empty carton in the bin, immaculate women looked me up and down with a facial expression that seemed to suggest I should be apologising for something, as if my clothes offended them.

And yet how ironic that a few years ago, my outfit would have been regarded as completely normal. Only now in an era of advanced social technology did it matter to these people that I wasn’t carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag and wearing a cream blazer. The ability of people to stay in constant contact with friends and colleagues while travelling across the globe, by updating everyone and his wife about their every move with tweets and photos, means that nobody is free from judgement about how they look, or what possessions they own. As a result, travel has started to become less about backpacks and dog-eared journals, and more about luxury hotels and strong WiFi on buses. Where’s the sense of adventure and escapism gone?

When I think of genuine backpacking, I think of counting waterproof mascara as ample make-up; wearing my cheapest, scruffiest clothes and not caring if they get torn or muddy; accepting that I may have to go a couple of days without a shower; checking my emails every few days on a slow computer in an internet cafe; and spending my food budget at the supermarket on biscuits and bread. But now it seems that even budgeting backpackers are expected to constantly conform to high standards of appearance, financial expenditure and socio-technological mobility.

It is common that people will stop in Iceland just for one night, en route to a destination in Europe or North America. Being situated only 20km from Keflavík airport, the Blue Lagoon therefore makes sense as a place to visit for some pampering time. Many of the people who come here will not be interested in learning about or seeing anything else of Iceland. It is simply another place for them to spend their money in and post a photo to Twitter from, before heading back to their hotel for a fancy dinner and spending the evening in their suite browsing the internet. The boost to Iceland’s tourism industry that comes from the bulging wallets of such people means that unfortunately, the strong presence of businessmen and bankers; trophy-wives and spoilt children, is set to linger on in the Blue Lagoon as the features of the resort continue to be catered towards their ostentatious demands.

One consolation is that the heat of the lagoon isn’t a natural occurrence, instead being produced by geothermal energy usage, so at least an innate wonder of the country isn’t being contaminated by such a pompous bunch.  However at the same time, one can argue whether native Icelanders would even want their country’s energy to be used to feed the hungry desires of such strong representatives of capital, especially when this is something they themselves can relate little to.  As debate grows (in the context of proposals to build more hotels in Reykjavík) about whether Iceland’s government is neglecting its public expenditure in favour of developing the tourist industry, it is not surprising to note that few Icelanders themselves seem to visit the tourist-haven that is the Blue Lagoon, especially if this is the kind of snooty atmosphere they’ll be greeted with.

Before I start sounding like a boring draconian, let me clarify that I’m not at all immune to the idea of sipping champagne in a relaxing hot bath outdoors. Who wouldn’t enjoy that? But you can enjoy such pleasures without trying to make other people feel inadequate for the simple reason that they aren’t sporting the latest materialistic goods and designer names. I could have told those snobs the names of all the renowned natural wonders of the country that I’d seen during my travels. Then I realised that in this day and age, I wasn’t actually sure which names would be regarded with higher value.

For a moment I wondered if it was just a case of me feeling intimidated about bathing amongst these people with all their commerce-and-capital-orientated chat. But actually, it was simply that I didn’t want to be amongst these people with their plastic cards and plastic faces, lending my support to their arrogantly flamboyant lifestyles. Like any girl, I of course like to look good, but whilst I’m travelling the tomboy in me would rather I spend my day lifting my feet up a notorious mountain than having them rubbed in a resort’s spa. I could do the latter in my own country. And yet evidently because the habits of the image-obsessed celebrities women ‘follow’ on Twitter would disagree, the ‘outdoors’ aspect of the former is becoming viewed as an unattractive activity for the female traveller.

As I walked towards the exit past ladies sauntering around in their white robes, I felt immense relief that I’d decided to come here last on my trip. Had I visited the Blue Lagoon first, it might have damaged my expectations of what was to come for the remainder. But luckily for me, I knew this brief experience was an exception to the real Iceland that I’d been fortunate to see for myself.

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I disliked the Blue Lagoon not because of its purpose or how it looked, but because of its association with high socioeconomic status.  To the majority of the people I saw there, the pool of water mayaswell have been a pool of money. This is what their minds were purely drawn to – the acquirement of it; the spending of it; and the display of it. Just like demand for five-star hotels leads to the chipping away of old concrete, the Blue Lagoon represented how materialism has begun to chip away at the old values of travel. Young people are now growing up influenced by implications that travelling is about exhibiting their clothing collection and taking photos of a popular place on their iphone, ready to show off straight to their friends back home with the click of a button. Travel money is spent on expensive perfume at the airport, not cultural mementos from the country they’re visiting. In ten years will young people even be using backpacks?

Located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but lava fields, the Blue Lagoon has sadly become trapped in a spider’s nest of capital-fixation, with little choice but to please wealthy foreign visitors if it wishes to help liberate the economy, in a land where the high cost of living is lamented. As a result, the Blue Lagoon for me unfortunately represents the negative effects of the modernisation of travel.

So if you decide to visit Iceland someday, please don’t make seeing the Blue Lagoon your priority. There is so much more this country has to offer, often for free and often in unexpected places. It is, of course, a cruel irony that you will however be doing the country’s economy a favour if you do go. In which case, please wear your backpack and walking boots with pride.

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Another blogger recalls 5 disappointing experiences…