After pulling an all-nighter of fitting my life for the next five months into ONE duffel bag and ONE hikers backpack, it’s time. This bag has been packed, unpacked, repacked, unpacked, and repacked again just to make sure nothing’s missing (not even exaggerating). So, running on no sleep, filled with caffeine and a Subway sandwich we are all ready to go and embark on our adventure, first stop JFK and a flight to Reykjavik, Iceland. And if I forgot anything…not much I can do now!!
ICELAND – Land of the Vikings
Day One: Thursday
It’s been a little over a week out of the country, yet this whirlwind of constantly doing things makes it so it feels like ages since I was frantically packing for this trip. I feel like every day has been a bright and early start, nonstop activity throughout the day, and then a late late bedtime, no matter what. Finding time to sleep has become difficult, but like many other SASers say, you can sleep when you’re back home, but for now there are just too many amazing things to be experiencing.
After getting to JFK on August 15th with plenty of time to spare before the flight, we breezed on by security. I’ve noticed even though I have absolutely nothing to worry about in my luggage, I always get this pang of nervousness and anxiety walking through the x-ray machine. Same thing when a cop turns on his lights and I panic just to realize I’m still cruising leisurely at ten miles below the speed limit. However, as always, we were waved right along into the Duty Free shop and the McDonalds where my last American food was devoured. Big Mac and fries was a wise decision.
Aside from getting stuck next to this girl from California that recounted every plane horror story she ever heard about and saying ohmygodohmygodohmygod every time we hit turbulence, the flight was fine.
Landing around midnight local time, Keflavik airport was pristine and practically empty. The airport was originally built during WWII as an American army base, but has since been converted into an international commercial airport. Conveniently, its only about an hour’s drive to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital and biggest city.
After checking into BUS Hostel on the outskirts of downtown Reykjavik, bumping into all the other beds in the dark 14-person room, and forgetting where we put everything in our giant duffel bags, we were starving. Yet, there’s not much to eat on the outskirts of town at 2 in the morning in Reykjavik, Iceland (population of Iceland: 320,000. Population of NYC: 8,336,697). I’m still grateful for the 24-hour gas station food we succeeded in finding. But, in typical hostel fashion, the microwave was broken, the oven didn’t exist, and I can’t work a Panini grill, which encouraged some cooking creativity. You can imagine how well I slept that night.
Day Two: Friday
Hostel rooms with fourteen other guests are not so conducive to peaceful sleeping, but you get what you pay for. If someone isn’t snoring, then someone else is probably deciding that 3am is the prime time to unzip, zip, then unzip again whatever enormous duffel bag they’ve probably crushed your bag with. Then there’s the kid that, I swear, stands next to the door and opens and closes it on cue with your eyelids opening and closing as you try desperately to fall asleep. But enough complaining, its cheap and clean and a place to lay your head and meet some cool people. AND they had complimentary toast and jam for breakfast, with crunchy Skippy peanut butter (the only acceptable kind in my honest opinion).
This trip was the first time I had ever been in a hostel, so the whole experience was pretty new. The most overwhelming feature that stuck out to me was how friendly everyone was. Even just sitting around the breakfast table, standing in line for coffee, or reading a book by yourself, people would come up to you and start talking and swapping travel advice and stories from their own adventures. The weirdest thing is that there is an acknowledgement that you probably will never see this person again in your life. Yet, the conversation is so valuable because of all the things you can absorb from their experiences, and hopefully in exchange their encounter with you will prove beneficial for them. Conversation with the purpose of learning can be so much more exciting than conversation that merely fills time. For example, I’m never going to see Tobias, the traveling German with a great knack for storytelling, unless by some bizarre circumstance, yet I learned so much by listening to his adventures in Germany, Australia, local tips on Iceland, and especially hearing his political and social views on America and American tourists in general. Seeing an outside perspective of America was invaluable and something I could only gain by talking to people outside of the USA. And, thankfully, I learned that Europeans are happy to see American tourists because there are few of us that leave the safety of our red white and blue flag to study abroad and learn, when in comparison to other countries.
Instead of spending exorbitant amounts of money on city buses and tour guides, Byron and I would pick wandering around and getting a feel for a location by foot any day. Finding all the nooks and crannies of downtown Reykjavik meant walking miles and miles in all directions, using what has become my personal bible, OffMaps. This lifesaving app can be downloaded onto Apple devices and it allows the user to access hundreds of city maps using GPS locating services. Here’s the best part: it uses NO data on your plan. Seriously. It gives you an exact pinpoint where you are and then a search feature showing you exactly where all the popular destinations are.
Our self walking tour took us to all the quaint colorfully painted houses, shops, and street art, then down to the water and finally to a huge shopping mall Kringlan. This mall was so similar to American malls, you wouldn’t have even realized you were in Iceland. That is, until we got to the attached grocery store where we dined on Icelandic cheese, salmon and shrimp spread, and crackers for lunch. Not to mention my first legally purchased beer. Don’t get too excited though—Iceland is extremely strict about alcohol regulations and only sells light 2.2% beer in supermarkets, making it slightly more exciting seltzer water at best.
Since Iceland is known for offering some unusual delicacies, Byron and I made it a goal to try as many new foods as we could manage—not only for Iceland, but I think everyone should try to keep this sort of goal on any trip (check out the Yum blog page on this site…still in progress). In order to accomplish these food goals, it requires a little bit of flexibility when it comes to cost, I mean you can’t just order whale steak at any old restaurant on the strip. So we got all dolled up and strolled downtown for dinner at a fancy restaurant called Grillmarket.
I’m sad to say we never got to eat at the restaurant that night.
On the journey to downtown, I kept getting all these stares from locals and other tourists and realized that I was the only one in a dress with my legs exposed and no tights or leggings (Icelanders take their leggings quite seriously and have several shops dedicated just to this). So here I was in the middle of my fashion faux pas desperately searching for an open store, dragging Byron all around until I found a pair. Success.
We passed a skate park downtown with the most creative and vibrant graffiti I’ve ever seen, but the local teens chilling there were a little bizarre. I’ve never seen eleven year olds rock a Macklemore “thrift shop” styled fur coat and hair quite like these kids. Probably a hipster Icelandic thing.
We had the hardest time trying to find the restaurant. We would see our little pinpoint on the map app, hovering right over our destination’s address on their busiest street Laugavegur, yet could not find it for the life of us. Very Platform 9 ¾ for those Harry Potter fans out there that can relate. Yet after discovering the secret passage through Narnia to find this restaurant, the haughty maitre d’ declared that they were unfortunately booked and the only spot we could get was tomorrow at 10:30pm. So we took it.
Our dinner did not end in complete disaster though since we wandered around downtown, saw all the locals at the clubs and bars on their “runtur” (Icelandic version of a college “pregame”), and ended up at a Vietnamese noodle shop for dinner.
However, the highlight of the night for me was stumbling across a bar named after my favorite movie, The Big Lebowski. Probably the last thing I was expecting to see that night, but it turned out to be a night filled with disco dancing, Icelandic traditional Brennivin schnapps (the “Icelandic Death”), Aretha Franklin and some killer movie décor. Another amazing sleepless night in Iceland.
Day 3: Saturday
After waking up a mere three hours from falling asleep, with my head pounding as a reminder of the night before, we went through a frantic dash of getting ready for the tour bus that was scheduled to pick us up. This flurry of packing included cramming all of our clothes (far from the neatly rolled shirts they once were), calculating the walk to tonight’s hostel, desperately trying not to forget some crucial item, slapping peanut butter haphazardly on a stack of bread and calling it breakfast, hoisting our luggage down the seemingly endless flights of stairs and into the communal storage room, and sprinting out the door to the patiently waiting tour bus outside the hostel.
I wish I could say that this pattern of stressful departure was the only time it happened, but I’d be lying.
Finally catching our breath and apologizing for whatever trivial quarrelsome things we said during the rush out the door, we relaxed into our cozy “Bustravel” seats and munched away on our feast of peanut butter toast. The drive out of Reykjavik’s urban setting brought us into the rural countryside of Iceland, with landscapes so unbelievably open that I had a feeling of smallness and awe.
We were taken past Icelandic horse pastures, which we learned were crucial in the equine business due to the Icelandic horse’s advantageous gait. Other than horses, thousands of wandering sheep and the occasional bird, Iceland has very few animals. Even better, they have no animals that pose a threat to humans. With the lack of predators, the people here enjoy caving, hiking, climbing and other extreme activities since they have the confidence that no other animal could harm them. What they do have to worry about however, is the constantly changing nature.
The land is so radically diverse from any other country. This is due to the volcanic activity that was and still is a major influence on the geography. For example, you can drive past flat green pastures with little rambling streams and farms, then look in the distance to see a gargantuan volcanic mountain (still active!) covered in glaciers and snow. Look to your left and you’ll see the coastline, past mile after mile of black volcanic ash and sand, with the far off outlines of several tall islands barely in sight.
Drive for another hour and you’ll drive on your teeny tiny road in between enormous cliffs and mountains that are about to swallow miniature mythical-looking towns consisting of breath taking waterfalls, a church, and possibly four or five houses with brightly painted roofs. Oh, and those fuzzy little cotton balls climbing bravely (or foolishly?) up to the tippity top of the cliff to join one or two other daredevil sheep. We later learned that the sheep that climb to the top are looking for the tastiest grass, but I still say they’re being nonsensically suicidal.
Drive for another hour and you’ll feel a sense of barrenness as you pass through miles and miles of lava fields. These are comprised of moss-looking solid volcanic material that stretches out infinitely in every direction. Certainly not the place I’d want to have car troubles.
Trying to understand the type of lifestyle these remote villages had was extremely difficult for me. I kept thinking of the things I would miss, like the Internet, neighbors, shopping, or the mobility of my car. No grocery stores, no schools, no bars, no cable TV. However, this complete isolation definitely had its benefits and simplicity.
After five hours of being glued to the window, we finally arrived at our destination: Glacier Lagoon. Everyone immediately woke up on the bus and stared out the window at the first site of the icebergs. We knew what we were supposed to see from the picture on the brochure, but it is a totally different experience standing on the edge of a lagoon being just a few meters away from massive glacier pieces taking all kinds of natural shapes and decorated in stripes of color in white, blue, and black. “Jökulsárlón” literally means glacial lagoon and is located in southeast Iceland. The boat ride on the lagoon gave us an even closer look at the icebergs, informing us that the icebergs are constantly tipping over, forming, and changing shape and color by the hour. Even though science facts are important, I personally was excited to find out that the James Bond Die Another Day chase scene on the ice was filmed at this same lagoon and required an entire dam to be made in order to freeze solidly.
Sadly with the trends of global warming and salinity levels, the amount of glaciers is shrinking—glad I got to see them while they still exist!
The long journey back to the city comprised of snoozing, a quick stop at one of the few restaurants along the seacoast for traditional Icelandic lamb soup, and stops at two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss.
After begging the bus driver to drop us off at our next hostel, he kindly let us off at KEX hostel, saving our bodies the extreme pain that surely would have come from walking across town with our barely-rolling duffels.
KEX was…interesting. Having no elevator (a definite trend in Iceland), we dragged our impossibly heavy luggage all the way to the top floor by use of stairs. Considering we booked our two beds months in advance, we expected to see two empty beds in our assigned room. But no, instead we were greeted by a boisterous British girl informing us that no, these beds were already taken and there was only the small top bunk in the corner that was vacant. To top it off, the only light bulb in the room had been broken for days and seemed like it was going to continue remaining broken, leaving us to trip and grab whatever was closest to prevent falling…only to come to the realization that you had accidently grabbed a complete stranger’s hairy left leg in the complete darkness.
On the bright side, we made it barely on time to Grillmarket for our 10:30pm dinner reservation. Inside the restaurant, beautiful looking people sat down at beautifully hand crafted wooden tables, and gave their orders to the beautiful waiters and waitresses, who then brought their beautiful looking dinners up the beautiful spiral staircase, all while smiling beautiful radiant smiles. Even the bathrooms had naturally carved wooden waterspouts; giving the customer the feeling that they were washing their hands in none other than the famous waterfalls of today’s excursion.
Keeping with our goal to eat as many exotic foods as possible, we dined on a Mink Whale appetizer accompanied with bread, butter, and black volcanic salt. The main entrée consisted of horse, tasting much like any other steak, but delicious nonetheless.
After an extremely full day, we trudged our bursting stomachs to the hostel, somehow wedged the two of us into the teeny tiny top bunk, and slept the best we could.
Day 4: Sunday
As always, we woke up late for the tour bus that was patiently waiting outside to take us on another outdoor nature adventure. Thankfully, our awesomely chill tour guide Bjorn was kind enough to pull the tour bus over (consisting of just Byron, me, and a Swedish girl) at a gas station for yet another delicious convenience store meal.
Since Iceland seems to have no shortage of waterfalls, we stopped at Faxi waterfall just in time to catch a rainbow, hovering right over the water. Every picture you take here could be postcard worthy; it’s that beautiful. The next waterfall, Gullfoss or “Golden Waterfall” was the closest thing to Niagra Falls I’ve ever seen. The power of this waterfall is incredible, yet Iceland already has so many resources with their thermal energy (from the volcanic activity) that they don’t even need to harness the power of the waterfalls. The best part of the waterfalls is the legends associated with them. They always involve a man wanting to hide his gold or silver behind the falls so no one could find it, or two lovers being united when one of them miraculously makes it across the water. Iceland folklore is everywhere and still embraced to this day.
No more waterfalls for the day, which was fine by me. Instead, we drove for hours into the highlands of Iceland on a dirt road barely passable on an ATV, let alone a small tour bus. We made a few stops in the dry desert we were passing through, first to follow the tradition of kissing a stone and throwing it into a pile for good luck. Again with their folklore. You would never expect to see such a dry desert in a country with so many green areas, but our guide explained that vegetation took up less than 30% of the land, and only about 1.5% of that was trees. Erosion is continuing to creep across the existing vegetation, resulting in these massive open landscapes.
After riding on the bumpiest road you can imagine, I became slightly aware of the fact that we were in the middle of no where and my bladder could not handle one more bump (again, there are basically no trees in Iceland). But just when you think you’re in the middle of no where, an old Icelandic Ski Lodge pops into view and your tour guide explains this will be our lunch stop. Frozen in the 1950s, this lodge was built when there was actually enough snow to ski in these mountains. Sadly, the snow hasn’t returned since about twenty years ago, so this structure serves as a pit stop on the way to hiking our main destination: Kerflingerfjold.
My adrenaline was already pumping due to the almost vertical winding roads that lead up to base of our hike. My confidence in our tour guide’s driving skill was questioned when we talked all about the times he’s gotten stuck up on these roads. But he definitely had our backs when he brought out a bag of hand-knit woolen hats, mittens, and jackets since us tourists were hopelessly unprepared for the harsh wind.
The next two hours of hiking up and down slippery mud leading past bubbling pools of muddy sulfuric water, climbing up a glacier, taking in all the colors of the rainbow embedded into these chemical deposits in the mountain, and dipping my feet into snow surrounded hot mountain springs was indescribable. Nothing I say in this post will be able to capture how overwhelmingly amazing this experience was, just to be surrounded by an environment so foreign from anything on the world. I’ll try to post a few pictures to try to convey some of this, but other than that you need to see this. By far the coolest thing I’ve ever done.
On the drive home we learned all about the official “Geysir”, which all other geysers were named after. Sadly the original Geysir is no longer erupting, but its twin next door “Strokkur” gave quite a performance and erupted three times for us. Since there were so few of us on the tour, Bjorn took us to some extra sights and let us take our time wandering the UNESCO World Heritage site Þingvellir National Park (no, I have no IDEA what that letter at the beginning is) and taking all the long mountain roads home, giving us the best sunset view I’ve ever seen. I would have paid twice as much as I did for this tour, it was that great.
To top off the already jam packed day, we rushed off to a local restaurant Bjorn recommended and pushed our gastric braveness to the limits. Fermented shark already sounded pretty nasty to me, but when the smell of the shark cubes assaulted my nose, it took some serious courage to eat one. Bad decision. The best I can describe the taste is somewhere between cat pee and Windex. Blech.
Puffin tasted a little better, kind of like roast beef. The thing that threw me off with the puffin was the fact that it looked like beets. The sea bird dish was right on my level; somehow tasting like a steak from a cow that liked eating birds. With a cornucopia of animals in my tummy, I was stuffed and ready for bed.
Day 5: Monday, August 19
I think it’s actually statistically impossible to be late to every single thing we planed, but somehow we almost missed our tour bus AGAIN. But, this one was definitely my fault. We walked across the street to grab some hearty fast food for breakfast, spotted a tour bus in front of the hostel and I panicked and thought it was our tour bus (Reykjavik Excursions and Icelandic Excursions are pretty easy to mix up). So Byron sprints out of the Aktu Taktu restaurant while I’m in the middle of ordering, sweet talks the bus driver to wait for us to sprint up the four stories of stairs, grab all of our bags, pray we didn’t forget anything, check out, and hop on the bus. So after all of that situation, we pull into the transfer bus station, they look at our ticket and they tell us that we’re with the wrong travel company. Great. So then all the bus drivers are talking in Icelandic about what to do with us silly tourists and they decide to drive us to the other company. It actually ended up working out in my favor since they forgot to charge us the ride. Booyah.
Our stressful morning was revived when we stepped out into the sun and into the naturally blue-green hot water of Blue Lagoon spa and resort. Its always a bit of a culture shock for me when I walk into a female locker room and see all sorts of ages and body types strutting around completely naked, but you learn that looking at the floor on your walk through to the pool entrance is advantageous.
The pool was filled with solid green blue water that was warmer than a swimming pool, but colder than a hot tub…as in PERFECT temperature. We enjoyed a lazy morning and afternoon here, floating around, using the sauna and steam room, and of course plastering our faces with their “healing mud mask”. Definitely a great way to spend your day right before stepping into Keflavik airport and dealing with security and customs.
After trying to spend off all the rest of my Icelandic Kronas in the souvenir shop and hoping on the plane, it was a short two hours until London popped into view (yes, I got the window seat this time). I wish I could say I had the same pleasant experience on the Tube, but that was actually hell and I don’t recommend anyone try to take any metro when you have three bags of luggage, each weighing a comparable amount to a third grade child. Also, when buying luggage feel free to splurge when it comes to rolling wheels.
One way or another we ended up at our hostel, Saint Christopher’s Village, met some other SAS kids for the first time in our 22 person shared room, and unpacked our bags for the hundredth time. Other kids wanted to go out and experience the nightlife of London, but since we’d been traveling for the past week, we needed to eat, sleep, and blog desperately.