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.

1157444_10153290759550495_585062304_n

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

1209405_10153290760105495_1337564364_n

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.

1240289_10153290767280495_1742600831_n

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.

 

 

Advertisements

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.

***

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.

1185532_10153290751840495_466715604_n

 

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.

1150364_10153290752235495_257561036_n1239423_10153290752665495_1650539238_n

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.

1185788_10153290752970495_2021288566_n

 

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.

***

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.

1186157_10153290782005495_1121783091_n

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.

***

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.

***

Another blogger recalls 5 disappointing experiences…

Good Things Come in Small Packages: Reykjavík Culture Night

If you were to ask an eight year old where Iceland is, they would probably start giving you directions to their nearest supermarket branch. Realistically, Iceland is a country that many people of my generation probably didn’t think about that much until the infamous 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (I’ve officially learnt how to pronounce it properly), angry that it had cancelled their family holiday. Apart from that though, they would probably know little else about what goes on in this weird and wonderful land, or the name of the capital for that matter (it’s Reykjavík by the way, meaning ‘Smoky Bay’). Only recently whilst here did I hear from a lady about how when visiting Alton Towers in England some years ago, she was unimpressed to see that Eskimo people had been drawn on a world map to represent Iceland. And yet in a country that has around 320,000 inhabitants compared to the 60 million or so of the UK, it might be easy to assume that Icelanders live a basic life off the land, where fishing is classed as a party.

If a Londoner was to visit Reykjavík, they wouldn’t even class it as a city. There is no underground system and there are no skyscrapers; no smelly fumes and sounds of beeping as taxi drivers yell at each other; and no huge crowds of people in high heels and fancy suits dominating the pavements as they rush off to work, talking too loudly on their mobile. The word ‘capital’ does not apply here – try ‘simplicity’ instead. Capital of a country deeply affected by the 2008 global recession, Reykjavík can be described as a timid child, reluctant to follow in the footsteps of other big and bold European cities. But if you visit Reykjavík on its annual Culture Night (Menningarnótt), you will see a very different side to the city, when the shy child comes out to play. It’s a side that shows you don’t need millions of people and a load of money to show just how vibrant your country’s culture is.

***

I’ve spent the second week of my trip to Iceland doing a help-exchange with a family who live in the capital. On Saturday August 24th my host bought me a copy of the ‘Reykjavík Grapevine’ – a magazine written in English for tourists to find out the latest news and events in the capital. Three of its pages were filled with free events going on all day as part of the cultural celebrations. I highlighted those I was interested in seeing, getting giddy with excitement when I saw that one event included the chance to ride around on the back of a Harley Davidson…unfortunately I would be too late to make that though. The list of options seemed endless: dressing up in vintage costumes; wood carving classes; make-your-own-Viking soap demonstrations; photography exhibitions; boat-making workshops; Icelandic calligraphy lessons; poetry readings and outdoor concerts. My host played me some Icelandic songs as I read the magazine. One band was called ‘Retro Stefson’ and one member had been in her eldest daughter’s class at school.

The family and I packed our umbrellas ready for the rain and squeezed onto a bus heading downtown. They were running for free today and took us on a slight detour as the roads were closed of traffic. Red bunting draped from the trees as we walked along Laugevegur, brimming with people consulting the events list. Soon we heard the sounds of a drum beating behind us as a group of men and women dressed as Vikings marched along the road. A policeman on a motorbike followed behind, stopping to flash a thumbs up at a little boy dressed in a Superman costume.

1176377_10153297319855495_1310954289_n

 

Smells of raspberries and chocolate sauce greeted us as we walked off the main street. Certain houses were offering waffles to passers-by for free and my host’s eight year old son shyly approached the table to ask for one. After managing to avoid a second helping we went to my host’s cousin’s house to set up for a second-hand sale. As we stuck poles into the ground to set up a tent, the cousin’s three year old son pranced around in the garden, showing off the medal he’d received for walking 5km in the city’s marathon that morning. A small Icelandic flag hung from the porch steps.

Guys in their mid-twenties in skinny jeans flocked to see my host’s collection of old records, jokily reminiscing with her when they saw the likes of Duran Duran and Wham!. Elderly ladies next to them nosied over the shoe collection, whilst pram-pushers gazed with interest at children’s books and an old Karate kit. My host asked me to swap a 1000krona note for some change, so I jumped into the hustle and bustle of the main street once more. The sweet shop was packed with little children wearing face paint and begging their parents for treats. On the way back, salsa music began to fill the air and people gathered to form a circle as a couple danced in the middle, before grabbing others from the crowd. “That’s my teacher!” my host’s 15 year old daughter exclaimed with embarrassment. Teenage boys on bikes stopped to watch then blushed as they were called to join in.

1238786_10153297320155495_1199312402_n

The atmosphere was alive with anticipation and excitement. As I went off for a wander alone, people were walking around with a purpose that I hadn’t seen before whilst here. Choir singing sounded from the Hallgrímskirkja, the large Church, and provided a calming comfort from the wet weather. I walked down to the Skúlagata near the harbour, passing groups of people coming to and from the Harpa, the big music hall. The ladies looked like they were attending a fashion show, heels clacking on the concrete as they paraded through town in their woolen coats without a care about the rain. They clearly saw the day as an opportunity to dress up and put on a show. Forget Paris or Milan, today it was time for Icelandic women to hog the limelight.

1005818_10153297318700495_1104581091_n

I walked up from the harbour with no idea where I was going or what I was heading towards. It didn’t seem to matter – there was something going on everywhere. To my right I saw a stage being set up, and a small crowd of people stood around chatting with friends as they waited for the gig to start. Suddenly I spotted one of the guys from the music video my host had shown me that morning – a lucky coincidence! As the music began the size of the crowd increased until it had formed a mosh pit of umbrellas. People of all ages came to watch, standing on the grass banks and making space for others. A group of pram-pushers gathered in one corner, chattering away. The singer motioned for everyone to jump up and down, and children and adults alike joined in. You couldn’t help but smile seeing it. The music was so youthful but it was as if all the parents felt like they were 16 again, and yet nobody was embarrassed by their behaviour.

1233489_10153297320400495_1980221143_n

 

Back at my host’s cousin’s house they were grilling steaks. We turned the TV on to watch the 10 Year Anniversary Concert of one of the country’s main radio stations. It was being held ten minutes down the road but we didn’t fancy standing in the rain. “Ahh I hate these presenters!” my host said indignantly, as a pair resembling the Icelandic version of Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby came on our screens. Then a band came on that were popular when she was a teenager and she sang along happily again as a greying singer attempted some sort of hip motion that he soon looked to regret.

Around 10.30pm, we set off through the rain to go and see the fireworks that would be held near the concert venue. People swarmed through the streets like a bunch of crazy flies and I got caught in a web of laughing and shouting as people lost their friends in the crowd. Little boys almost took me out as they sped through the streets on their scooters, hyper from the candy floss that had been selling all day. Suddenly dance music filled my ears and I saw a  massive group of people in front of me having a random rave in the middle of the street without a care in the world about what they looked like. ‘This…is…mental,’ I thought to myself, as I almost got my eye poked out by someone’s umbrella.

A huge mass of people was gathered on the grass above the concert stage, some of them dancing around the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, the first official Icelander to settle in Reykjavík. It felt like the whole population of the city had gathered there, determined not to let the rain put them off. 99% of everyone there seemed to be wearing Icelandic jumpers with their lovely striking patterns, as if wanting to show pride in their country and its native products. Children perched on their dad’s shoulders and couples snuggled up under their umbrellas. A boy came round handing out free sparklers to young children, and in the light they cast you could see the sparkle spread to their eyes. Then the music stopped and everyone chattered in low voices excitedly, only to gasp as the sky lit up with a stream of red. And then green. And gold. And purple. Then they rocketed into the sky behind us and everyone turned around in fascination, mouths wide open like little kids in front of a sweet shop.

The fireworks lasted ten minutes, and then at ten past 11 it was time to go home. The buses were still free and extra services were being offered from the airport coach terminal. Hoards of people trudged through the puddles in the same direction, absent-mindedly kicking the occasional beer can as they cheerily reviewed the evening with their peers. Suddenly I felt freezing cold. The energy of everyone around me had warmed me up before, and now I was feeling exhausted, as if the batteries had run out with the last screech and bang of a firecracker.

1003058_10153297320920495_1490680901_n

We squeezed on a bus that soon got caught in a traffic jam – a rare sight in Reykjavík – watching as people clambered into their cars, some of them probably still drunk. Finally we got moving, only for me to wince as someone trod on my foot, losing their balance after the bus jerked to a sudden halt for another jam. Then I heard a retching noise behind me and looked back to see a girl my age in ripped tights slumped in her seat, vomit on the seat in front of her. Her boyfriend mumbled “takk fyrir” sheepishly as some people handed him tissues, with kids making “urghh” noises. We got off the bus with me breathing a sigh of relief, ready for my warm bed.

 

But as I lay snug under my covers, picturing that poor girl with her head down a toilet, I couldn’t help but smile thinking back over the day’s events. For such a small city, Reykjavík sure knows how to throw a big party and what it lacks in human numbers it definitely makes up for in its giant character. There was something refreshing about seeing people of all ages take part in events together – a genuine sense of community spirit as the people proudly showed off Iceland’s origins and trademark features. The culture night was for everyone, with all interests recognised and catered for. I have no idea how much putting on all the events during the day will have cost, but there was definitely a big voluntary aspect involved, and much co-operation between different organisations and societies, all with the aim of making people, Icelandic and foreign, have a good time.

It made me wonder how often you can use the word ‘community’ when talking about London, or England and the UK as a whole. It seems that the closest our country gets to a united national celebration is when Liz has reached another Jubilee or the royal baby has popped out, but even then these aren’t events that everybody is willing to celebrate. Yes, the 2012 Olympics were a great cause for celebration, but why should we have to wait four years for something to celebrate as a nation, and why should it just have to come from sport?  Danny Boyle’s one-off Olympic Opening Ceremony display is essentially the kind of thing that Icelanders celebrate every year – the historical stories and cultural traits that make the country what it is. You can’t just blame Alec Salmond or Plaid Cymru for our lack of cultural celebration – if we’re just talking about England, does anyone even remember when St George’s Day is, never mind do anything about it?

The only thing England seems to have over Iceland in relation to national celebrations is a bit more money to spend on them. Snobs could say that the firework display in Reykjavík was too short and nothing spectacular in comparison to our annual New Year’s Eve display, but that’s not important. I’m not Icelandic and yet even I could immerse myself in the community spirit. Even without fireworks, there would have been enough pride and happiness in the small city that night to light up the whole sky.

And so next time you want to poke fun at this sparse island for only being good for puffin-eating and shutting down European air travel, go along to Culture Night and see for yourself how actually, Icelanders have a lot more to laugh about.

***

Details of the event can be found here.