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.

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Introducing Travel Article Apps from GPSMyCity

Have you ever read a blog post and thought, “I wish I could take this with me on my trip?”
GPSMyCity is making this happen with its travel article apps which allow travellers to read a blog article offline on their iOS device (e.g. iPhone, iPad). By upgrading, GPS will be embedded into the article so that users can find their way to the key places mentioned and not miss out on special sights.
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When I’m exploring a new city, I tend to let my feet wander and seek out interesting places away from the tourist trap. Guidebooks are great but they sometimes miss out unique areas of interest that a deviation from the conventional tourist route will help you discover. Using a guided-travel app will allow you to recreate such alternative routes for yourself, allowing you to experience different sights and sounds of a city. You’ll maybe even find more undiscovered gems along the way!

Even if, like me, you prefer to explore a new area independently and dislike the idea of often being on your phone or tablet when travelling, having an offline map means you have a useful reference for when your rambles go a little too off the grid..! It’s a handy port of call that doesn’t involve carrying bulky guidebooks, giving you more space in your travel bag for the important things like souvenirs and snacks!

Whether you are a first time solo traveller who would like some assistance to see you on your way, or a regular sightseer who loves finding new places but doesn’t have the strongest sense of direction, GPSMyCity could have the article you’re looking for.

 Over 700 cities across the world are featured in GPSMyCity article apps and they are free to download. To access them for your device, either click the link at the bottom of a blog post that has been turned into an app, or once you have downloaded the GPSMyCity app, browse by city to see which articles are available. You could choose from an article focusing on a particular district of a city to one with a theme (e.g. nicest street food, best book shops etc.).
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It costs $1.99 to upgrade an app to a GPS-guided version, of which the author will receive a small amount. The content of articles that become apps remains untouched.

Free App Giveaway
If you’re unsure about the value of GPS guided-travel articles, you can get an idea of them through the free app giveaway. For a limited period, you can upgrade for free the following article app: Escape to Portugal: Arrival in PortoAbout my first day in Portugal, it traces my steps through quiet alleyways and past street buskers, alongside dazzling rivers and over bustling bridges, and into small markets where I encountered locals going about their day.
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Other articles available to download include:
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Thank you for reading. Happy exploring!

Travel & Trepidation: How My Solo Adventures Began

People often remark how interesting/brave/crazy it is that I go travelling by myself. In a world where we often hear stories about kidnap and homicide abroad, it can seem risky, especially if you’re a young female. I sense that people don’t really understand why I’m happy to do it, or how I go about doing it. As I mark five years since I first travelled solo, I’ve been remembering how this seasonal hobby of mine came about.

The funny thing is that I too used to feel the same way as those aforementioned people. If a psychic had told me in the summer of 2010 that a year later I would be travelling through Canada by myself, I would have laughed in their face. I’d been lucky to travel to some great places on opposite ends of the world as a child with my family, and I had loved those experiences, but I couldn’t imagine going off somewhere myself. The world seemed so big and I didn’t think I’d be able to cope on my own.

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After finishing my A levels I opted to take a gap year, with my main aims being to apply to university and earn some money. The first half of that year was spent filling out UCAS forms and getting up at 5.15 a.m. to start a morning shift at the sports centre where I worked. Then in March 2011, after craving a break from the bleak spring weather, I flew to Australia to spend a month with some family friends. The only thing I had to do on my own was the flying, and then I would be in the care of people I knew. I would be meeting up with my sister at one point to visit our cousin for a few days, but hadn’t made any specific plans to go and see somewhere by myself. It wasn’t going to be a true travelling experience as such; I simply wanted to chill out in the sun for a while.

I turned up at the house only to find out that the family were hosting a Scottish man, who was working for them in return for food and accommodation. He’d set off nearly a year ago by himself to do a round-the-world trip, and hearing his stories got me thinking. Even if he was a few years older than me (and male), he made travelling alone sound fun and, most importantly, doable.

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I returned to England with the travel bug, revitalised by my month away. I’d received an offer to study at university in London before I left, and I now accepted it. I would be moving from life in the isolated countryside to the bustling capital – a complete paradox. London had previously seemed too daunting a place to live for a girl who was used to travelling 10 miles to the nearest village. But following my time in Australia, my curiosity about the world had increased and London seemed like the right choice.

In early May I started researching Canada, a couple of weeks after I returned from Oz. Hiking in the Rockies attracted me, and yet the prospect of travelling alone still made me feel nervous. Ideally I still wanted to travel with someone, but was unable to find anyone with the time, money or interest. In response, I looked up help-exchange schemes similar to the one my friend in Australia had been part of, thinking that I would just live with different families the whole time. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about turning up at a hostel with nobody to talk to. I found a few families in British Columbia who were happy to host me for a week each. However all the families I wrote to in the Rockies were fully booked, or demanded a minimum length of stay that I couldn’t commit to.

The plan seemed to be crumbling and I began regretting telling my friends so definitively that I was going to Canada.  Questions of rationality filled my head – had I really thought about this, or was I just trying to impress someone? And yet I couldn’t just give up so easily. To me that would be a failure. Slowly it sunk in that for the first week of my five-week trip, I would have to stay in hostels and risk having nobody to hang out with.

But gradually I got more into the idea of travelling alone. It was exciting – I could plan my own adventures without having to think about what anyone else wanted. I was totally free. I realised that I did want to do this for myself. It was my own challenge – I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Travelling alone formed a category in this new and improved ‘me’ that I wanted to create. I saw it as a way of reinventing myself before starting this new chapter in my life of university and life in the  big city. I wanted to be able to tell stories like my friend had – unique and interesting stories that were my own.

From that point onwards I became determined that this trip would happen. I was bored of my daily routine and craved an adventure. In early June I gave in my notice at work. My spare time when I wasn’t lifeguarding or serving customers was spent poring over my ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook and typing websites into Google, papers covered in scruffy notes soon beginning to pile up on my desk. I’d decided to start in Toronto and then spend a few days exploring the Rockies, and on June 25th I booked my flights. It was really happening – I was going to a new country by myself…and I had no idea what to expect. Of course I was excited to see a new country, but I still felt unsure of my capability to cope alone. 19 still seemed very young to have so much responsibility.

At the beginning of July I sorted out my travel insurance (with my dad’s help) and booked my hostel for two nights in Toronto and a flight to Calgary. It was really beginning to feel like an adventure now. July 1st may mark Canada Day and the increasing unification of territories into one nation, but for me too it marked a growing sense of autonomy and completeness. My friends and work colleagues remarked how brave I was going on my own, and it made me feel good. They assured me that I’d have no trouble making friends. I’d learned in this year that kindness can get you far, and it would now be time to use it. About ten days before my trip I went to attend my sister’s graduation ceremony in Sheffield, and afterwards joined her and her friends for drinks to celebrate. One of them told her that I was “confident without being arrogant.” It surprised me. I hadn’t realised I portrayed such traits. ‘Maybe I am braver than I thought?’ I wondered to myself. While I was still more nervous than I appeared, these comments helped boost my incentive. I liked the idea of being regarded by my peers as an inspiration.

I was volunteering at an international competition in Kent a few days before I left for Canada, so had to organise and pack everything before and bring it down in the car with me. I started feeling stressed, remembering how easy Australia had been in comparison. My backpack was stuffed with horse-riding gear, trainers and outdoor clothes and I couldn’t decide whether it was too much. “How am I going to carry all this?” I asked my mum incredulously, only half-joking. I checked and re-checked I had my passport and then said goodbye to my dad, who seemed very relaxed. He’d travelled alone when he was 17 and obviously thought there was little to it. With one last look back from the car at my home with the rose bushes taking over the front of the house, it was weird to think that I wouldn’t be back for another six weeks.

In Kent I was asked whether I was scared about going travelling on my own. My brave face re-appeared as I replied with a “Nahhh”. But I seemed to lose my voice over those few days, surrounded by adults who made me feel really young. I felt embarrassed as I struggled to make myself heard in conversation. Was this what it would be like in Canada?  My friend asked my mum if she was worried about me going away on my own. She said “Not at all” confidently, and I believed she meant it. But I wasn’t so sure of myself.

On the evening before my flight I took some clothes out of my backpack, still unable to decide exactly how much to bring. It was difficult to estimate – I had to consider how often I’d be able to find a washing machine and so on. At midnight I had finally finished, and collapsed on my bed exhausted. Mum asked how I was feeling. “Fine, just wary of getting lost,” I said with a nervous laugh. She reminded me to check everything twice, whether it be my luggage, or a map, or a bus schedule. It seemed simple, yet the butterflies were beginning to kick in. It suddenly hit me that I was going to be on my own, without her help. I lay on my bed in the hotel room and felt like crying. But I couldn’t pull out now.

We left the hotel early on the morning of August 2nd to avoid the busy traffic. I saw the signs for Gatwick airport and almost longed for a traffic jam so that I would miss my flight. But we soon pulled up at the drop off gate and it was time to say goodbye. Mum hugged me tight, saying “Love you, squeeze you, miss you already” as she always does, only her voice was starting to break. I pulled away and saw tears forming in her eyes. I hadn’t expected that from her because she’d seemed so calm about me going off by myself.  I felt my own eyes start to water and had to make myself turn around and not look back. Her fifth and final baby was going off into the big world and I guess I should have expected her to get quite emotional about it.

I had a window seat on the plane and looked down absent-mindedly at the men below scurrying around on the luggage buggies. To distract from thinking about my mum, I started talking to the mother and daughter next to me, asking if they were from Canada or visiting. The daughter said, “You’ll enjoy Toronto, it’s a great city.” I told myself she would be right, but when it came into view six hours later the butterflies returned. This was it. I waited for my backpack to emerge on the conveyer belt and sighed with relief when it did. As I checked it over and re-arranged the straps, I suddenly felt really glad of its company, as if it was some kind of friend. A girl with blonde hair similar to mine was doing the same about 10 metres away. ‘Maybe she’s staying at my hostel,’ I thought hopefully. But she soon walked off with a purposeful gait that suggested she had been here before, and my spontaneous hopes of immediately finding a travel companion were dashed.

As I walked through the arrival lounge I felt like a lost puppy. Then a young guy approached me, asking if I was heading downtown. “Er, yeah,” I said hazily. He told me where to get the bus from and where to get off in the city. I thanked him, my confidence soaring. My trip had started off well without me having to do anything. But naturally as soon as I got off at my stop the hustle and bustle of the city hit me and I felt confused again. I fumbled in my pocket for the map of the city that I’d picked up from the guy at the airport, only to find that it had fallen out and was now being trampled by people’s feet. I had no option but to ask someone, but people looked like they were in a rush to get somewhere and my voice came out faint and pathetic. Then I spotted a girl in a summery dress walking in my direction who looked a similar age, so I cleared my throat and asked her if she knew where my hostel was. “Sure, it’s…oh actually, I’ll just walk you there.” I followed her gratefully for a couple of blocks and she wished me a nice stay.

An Irish woman checked me in, giving me quizzical looks as if questioning whether I was about to vomit. I walked into my dorm only to see two girls sat on the floor studying a map. I greeted them with a prolonged “Heeeey” that sounded more confident than I expected. They nodded a greeting in return then got back to their map, mumbling in French. I turned away awkwardly and began making my bed in silence. They obviously had their own agenda and weren’t interested in making conversation. It was around 5 p.m. now. ‘I can’t just stay in here like this’ I thought to myself, so I padlocked my backpack and went for a walk around. The road system was confusing. I went to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing only to jump backwards in shock as a car shot round the corner. I cautiously watched other people to find out what the road rules were, feeling completely out of my comfort zone. Soon I stumbled upon a food store and bought some ham and bagels – breakfast and dinner for the next two days. The store was busy and I sensed the fellow customer’s impatience as I took my time to make sure I used the right coins. I hadn’t realised that tax wasn’t included in the item’s displayed price, and fumbled around clumsily in my purse for more change, wishing I’d remembered to remove my British currency.

I had no sense of where I was and soon realised I was lost again. Feeling like an idiot, I asked a couple for help. The girl got her iPhone out to find the hostel. She then gave me her number when I told her about the reserved girls in my dorm, in case I wanted to hang out. I felt surprised but relieved at the same time. But when I did get back to the hostel and turned on my phone, I realised I’d forgotten the pin to activate my new Sim card. I rummaged through my bag for the piece of paper, cursing myself silently when it became obvious I didn’t have it. Pessimistic thoughts flooded my mind. I went to email home from the computers in the hostel, to let mum and dad know I’d arrived safe. Trying to sound upbeat was difficult. I was completely useless at finding my way around, had nearly been run-over, had nobody to talk to, and didn’t have a working phone to contact my hosts later on with. All the worries I had carried beforehand about my ability to cope alone seemed to make sense. ‘What am I doing?’ I thought to myself, head in hands.

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I went down to the kitchen to make my boring bagel, feeling disheartened. Then I suddenly heard an Australian accent and my shoulders lifted as the familiarity of it gave me a sense of comfort. A guy was making some pasta with a German girl. I realised I had to speak up. It was now or never. So I made a joke about something he said. We got chatting and they asked if I wanted to join them outside.  I was offered a beer and crisps were shared out as everyone spoke about their individual travel plans. Most of them planned to stay in Toronto for a while and work here. I began to relax and enjoy myself, relieved that I’d made the effort to join in. The afternoon had started badly but now I was beginning to feel more positive.

The next morning I’d booked to go on a tour to Niagara Falls, but nobody from that group was going. I hoped I wouldn’t be on my own all day. A few minutes later two smiley girls got on my bus, chatting in Italian. They seemed friendly enough, but how did I know they’d want me to join them? I spotted another guy sat on the other side of the bus, and sensed he was English. Sure enough, I heard the accent when the tour guide asked him something. One voice in my head said ‘Perfect! You can hang out with him’, but another was reluctant. I knew English people. If I wanted to hang out with them I could have just stayed at home. This was my opportunity to meet people of different nationalities.

Grey clouds filled the sky as we walked down to the falls and got handed our blue waterproofs ready for our ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat trip. I purposefully stood myself fairly close to the girls. One of them caught my eye and we laughed at how funny we looked, with introductions following. They were the first Italians I’d ever spoken to. We hung out on the boat together, getting drenched by the spray from the magnificent falls. I went on to spend the rest of the day with them. I almost felt bad, as if I was intruding, but they didn’t mind at all.

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We were driven on to a quaint little town called Niagara-on-the-Lake with amazing chocolate shops and a store dedicated to Christmas. On the way there we passed a building with the name ‘School of Horticulture’ crafted in flowers on the front lawn. Its name rang a bell. I looked at my watch and smiled when I read ‘Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture’. I’d found it in a hostel in Australia with my sister and had (naughtily) taken it. It wasn’t flashy at all, but there was something about it that I’d liked. Now I was randomly and completely unassumingly passing its original home. It was as if I’d been destined to come here.

The tour ended with a trip to a winery where we got to sample some sickly sweet Ice Wine. The girls were staying at a different hostel to me. I wrote my name and email on a piece of paper, ready to offer it should they wish to keep in touch but anxious that they wouldn’t. But sure enough, they turned around as we approached their stop and the question “Do you have Facebook?” went on to become a key motto of my trip.

Before I got back to my hostel I went to the shop from the day before again to stock up on water, and felt slightly smug as I returned without getting lost. I was beginning to feel more like I could cope and I was walking around feeling less self-conscious. This time when I approached my hostel reception  to collect my key, the Irish lady flashed me a smile, as if my increased confidence showed. As I sat in the living area reading my guidebook, a German girl walked in and asked “Where do I go?” with a laugh. I told her where the dorms were and she later joined me. We sat with an Austrian boy and two Irish people. One of them was 30 and said she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to travel alone at 19. But then she added how great it is to do so because it makes you more open. I totally understood what she meant. Suddenly I felt really glad that I was on my own. Thinking back to the French girls in my dorm, I felt sorry for them. Their trip was going to be limited by the fact that they weren’t allowing themselves to hang out with other people who might enrich their experience.

I asked the German girl and Austrian guy if they wanted to go up the CN Tower with me in the morning. They said yes and we set off the next day with the sun now shining over the city, as if reflecting how much brighter my trip was becoming with every new day. From the tower one could see for miles. It couldn’t quite match the views in New York, but was still impressive. I stood on the thick pane of glass staring down 1500 feet at the ground below. Some people even dared jump up and down on it. We then spent the rest of the morning wondering around the city. On the way to Kensington Market in Chinatown with its abundance of fruit stalls, the Austrian guy pointed out a road sign with ‘King’s College’ on it. “Isn’t that where you’re going to study?” he asked. I laughed at the irony of it. But London was nowhere near here, and university still felt like ages away. I was starting to really enjoy myself and didn’t want to think about studying.

My bus to the airport was at 1 p.m. I gave the other two my contact details and checked out of the hostel, excited for the Rockies. I had a map of the city, but soon got confused and when I asked someone for help they sent me in the wrong direction. My back soon began to ache from lugging my huge backpack around in the midday heat. When I did find the stop, the driver told me its schedule meant I wouldn’t get to the airport in time. My confidence that had been improving so much began to falter as I envisaged missing my plane to Calgary. I had no idea what to do and stood helplessly on the pavement as passers-by looked at me inquisitively. Then another man showed up with a travel bag, only to hear the same information. He looked at me running my hands through my hair anxiously and asked if I wanted to split the fare for a cab to the next station where our bus would be. Without thinking twice I said yes. He was going to visit his mother in Ottawa for the weekend. I ran to make sure the bus didn’t leave without us as he gave the money, and sank into a seat, relieved that this man had been in the same boat. Some people might be funny about sharing taxis with strangers, but I had no regrets. It had been the most sensible option and was nice to know that we’d done each other a favour. I suddenly felt like a real traveller – spontaneous and practical.

We arrived at the airport and the guy called “Have a good trip” with a wave. I was sat next to a good-looking man on the plane, probably around 30 years old, and I didn’t expect him to want to talk. Then he asked casually, “You heading home or away?” I smiled to myself, remembering how I had asked the family on my flight over the same thing. We flew with the Great Lakes below us, and I asked him more about the geography of the country, surprising myself with how chatty I was. ‘Why sit in silence when you can learn something?’ I thought.

We landed in Calgary four hours later. I found my bus to Banff with no problems and as the glacier mountains came into view my excitement kicked in. This was the part of the trip I’d been most looking forward to. I got off on Banff Avenue and went to find a bank, remembering Dad’s advice about getting lots of money out at a time because of commission prices. The streets were filled with tourists on the way to dinner. A group of older ladies in peep-toe sandals gave me funny looks as I roamed around in my scruffy flannel shirt and trainers, hoisting my huge backpack higher up. This time I had no trouble finding my hostel. It was situated in a quiet area over the bridge. I was sharing a dorm with two girls from Montreal, who invited me to join them at a bonfire. The offer contrasted so much to the reception I received in the Toronto hostel, but I politely said I was going to do my own thing. It was different now. I’m a country girl. When I got to the city I felt miniscule and needed someone. But now I was in a rural area I felt more at home and less apprehensive about being on my own.

I set off walking along the Bow River, appreciating the peace and quiet. The air smelt of pine cones and midges hummed near the water. When I checked my emails later Mum had replied, saying she hoped I was okay – I’d sounded quite downbeat in the first email. That seemed like a long time ago now. I updated her of my whereabouts, telling her my plans for the next day. The girls were still asleep as I got up to get dressed and go explore in the early morning. I felt completely in my element. I didn’t even have a real map but just followed my feet and unlike in the city, they always led me to the right place. Reaching a main road which headed up towards Sulphur Mountain, I knew there was a bus I could get and went to read the signs, hearing mum’s advice of “check twice” in my head. Unlike in that store on my first day, I didn’t have to rush. With the rural environment comes so much more freedom.

I didn’t have time to hike the 5.6km route up to the mountain’s summit, so I got the gondola instead. A boy who looked about my age was sat in the ticket office looking bored. He gave me a look when I asked for my ticket that seemed to say ‘Why are you on your own?’ It made me blush and I got into my carriage feeling a little silly. As I rode up to the top I noticed that the carriages above and below me contained couples or groups. I was reminded of my Scottish friend recalling how some people had thought he was weird for travelling on his own. “I guess I’m weird too then,” I said aloud to myself, gazing at my watch pensively.

But if I was weird, it was worth it. After admiring the mountain squirrels for a few minutes, I walked along to a viewing point that overlooked the town below. It was breathtaking. I could just make out the glistening of a lake in the distance, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on either side. The turquoise river wound its way through the town with its patchwork of tiny houses, situated amongst layers of lush fir trees. I’d seen this very view in a photo on a website, and read about it in my guidebook. Now I was here myself, all through my own doing. A great sense of fulfillment hit me and I felt really proud of myself. This was my own personal achievement. All the stress and worries and embarrassing moments from before seemed like nothing now. It didn’t matter anymore if I got funny looks from people for wondering around on my own with this huge backpack. How many of them could say they had done something similar at the same age? I felt like I was on top of the world and nobody could take this feeling away from me.

Views from Sulphur Mountain

So in conclusion, I suppose that’s why I like to travel alone, because of that unbeatable feeling of individual accomplishment that it brings. I’ve always liked exploring the outdoors and in a sense it was something I soon fell into easily after the first few days. But it was by no means something I’d planned to do from a young age. There were butterflies, there were cynical questions, and there were tears. But with that comes so much more confidence afterwards. Since that trip, I’ve never looked back. Going off somewhere by myself just seems natural now and if anything, travelling with someone else feels ore stressful to me. Travelling alone gave me an extra spark, and I really don’t think I’d be who I am today without having done it.

Escape to Portugal: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for a Spark: Skógar & Skaftafell National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Iceland’s Golden Circle: First Impressions vs Land Expressions

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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