Return to Reyjavík: 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 Around Selfoss

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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