Iceland – Road Warrior (and the return home)

My last destination before returning to Canada was Iceland.  This was a country I had always wanted to visit.  From pictures and videos I had seen, every inch of the island looked to be beautiful and indeed it is.  Everywhere I had gone previously was driven by friends and family.  Places I had somewhere to stay and someone to show me around.  However, I was on my own for Iceland.  It seemed right to end my year away with one last trip on my own and take all the self reliance I had developed and put it to work.

My goal for Iceland was too see as much of “the nature” as possible, but renting a car, even a crappy car, is not overly cheap.  So, I had to spend a few days in Reykjavik.  By chance the ATP Music Festival was happening at the same time and I was able to get a three day pass fairly cheap.  This gave me something to do during my four days in Reykjavik.  Some of the acts I didn’t care for, some I liked, but the highlight was of course seeing Portishead for the first and probably only time in my life.  However, going to a music festival alone is not the most fun experience.  I was surrounded by obnoxious, drunk, stoned hooligans the entire time.  Being at something as social as a music festival alone can make you feel like a pretty big loner, and I suppose I was.  The festival was every evening so during the first three days I had half the day to do something else.  The first day I signed up for a guided caving trip with a man named þröstur (Thrustor).  In truth, it wasn’t anything special.  Meaning, the cave is easily accessible and open to the public but I didn’t know that at the time and I didn’t have a way to get there so I was fine going with a group.  The cave was an old lava tube which had pushed its way through the earth.  Some of the walls were so uniform that they looked like moulding in a house.

The second day I went to visit the infamous Blue Lagoon.  Like much of the trip, this would be a great place to go with a friend or partner.  I had neither with me but I wasn’t going to sit around and not see any of Iceland because of it.  The lagoon is incredibly relaxing and has an almost “I’m wading in nuclear waste” feel to it.  The place is incredibly touristy (and pricey), but thats to be expected with how important tourism is to Iceland.

On the third day I did some final exploring of Reykjavik for anything I may have missed during the first two days.  I had not.  Reykjavik is not very big and it doesn’t take long to explore everything the city has to offer.  I paid to go to the top of the cathedral (even though a guide book said it would be free).  Don’t bother.  It doesn’t go too high and all it does is provide a view to reaffirm how small Reykjavik is.  That’s not to say I disliked Reykjavik.  Quite the opposite.  I thought the city had a very comforting feel to it.  It also had some fun bars (I’m looking at you Big Lebowski) but being by myself and trying not to spend excessively, I didn’t get to experience a lot of what the night life had to offer.  Iceland is very expensive for such things (it was like Norway all over again).  There was a cafe called Babalu which had the best deal for food with a soup and sandwich for 1180kr (and an amazingly random Star Wars bathroom).  Although, Koffin’s lamb meat soup was pretty amazing.  There were lots of quaint little shops, record stores, and other such all around.  I was surprised to see a woman leave her baby outside in a stroller while she went in to a cafe to sit down and have a coffee.  A higher level of trust in Icelandic culture I suppose.  I guess it helps when your population is so small.

On the fourth and final day in Reykjavik I planned to hike the nearby Mt. Esja which overlooks the city.  I coordinated with the tourist information office downtown on how to get to the mountain which involved several bus change overs.  This was to be an all day affair.  At the second bus change over at the outskirts of the city something went wrong.  I along with several others on their way to Mt. Esja (evident by their backpacks) were left stranded as the next bus we were suppose to catch never showed up.  I walked a fair distance to find a way to cross the freeway so that I could get a bus on the opposite side of the road back into town.  The day cost me money with no pay off and was almost a whole day in Reykjavik wasted.  I was not a happy camper.  I went back to Kex Hostel and had a few beers.  The following day I was to start my road trip.  My goal was to do the entire ring road (Highway 1) but I would have to play it loose and fast and see if it would be possible to do it or whether I would need to turn back at any point.  I was fairly certain I was going to be given a car with a manual transmission (which I have NEVER driven) so I spent most of the evening watching youtube videos on driving a manual and asking friends for advice.  How hard could it be?

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The next day I made my way over to the SADcars office to pick up my ride.  Sure enough, there were no automatics available.  Buying a SIM card was cheap so I purchased one to be safe incase I got into trouble.  There was a large parking lot near the SADcars office I planned to practise in but they have an “empty tank to empty tank” policy, meaning you take the car and return the car with whatever happens to be in the tank.  Of course, it had an empty tank (If the capital SAD in SADcars didn’t emphasize it enough, these are haggard cars).  So here I had never driven a manual before and I needed to get it across the city to the nearest gas station.  I pulled out my custom made notes on “how to drive a manual” and laid them on the passenger seat.  Surprisingly, it didn’t go toooooo bad.  However, I also had to go to the nearest mall to buy a car adapter to charge my phone since I didn’t know if I’d have to sleep in the car.  Here I stalled the car multiple times and I had a bit of a freak out declaring “I can’t f***ing do this!”  After the soap opera ended, I got the car going again and made my way out of the city.  Thank goodness for traffic circles.  My first destination was the “golden circle” which passed a geyser, the continental rift, and several waterfalls (there were so many damn waterfalls on this trip that I am not even going to attempt to remember which is which).  Of course right by the geyser, amongst oodles of tourist traffic is when I stalled the car again (damn speed bumps).  The continental rift was one of the highlights of the golden circle.  The landscape was amazing.  You could actually see that the rock on the ground used to be flowing.  And standing between two continents is pretty cool.

I then started along the southern ring road.  The first 50km outside of Reykjavik had waterfall after waterfall and it was still very populated with tourists.  I managed to find the infamous “pool” out in one of the valleys.  The change room had an old board door and was covered in mud.  The pool felt hidden and it was a great feeling to find it.  I had also heard of a downed plane somewhere on the beach before Vik.  This would be my last destination for the day.  I had looked on google earth before leaving Reykjavik to try and figure out a route to get to it (“follow the stream, then the beach for 10 minutes, go north…”).  It didn’t work out.  I was wandering through this black sand and pebble “desert” for ages.  There were these mounds every now and again and I didn’t know what they were until one was in my path.  They turned out to be nests for some kind of bird.  I found that out when I accidentally surprised two which then chased me for about a kilometre while swooping at my head.  I had to slog through the loose earth as fast as I could while turning to raise and swing my backpack in defence.  Running in the loose volcanic pebbles was miserable and exhausting.  I managed to take a few videos pre and post “The Birds!” but the wind was too extreme to capture much audio.

When I finally found the plane, an Icelandic couple were also there.  Surprisingly they were asking me for information regarding the plane because this was their first time coming out to see it.  I told them that I heard it was a US crash landing, and not shot down but that I wasn’t totally sure about anything.

After I finally made it back to the car that was parked on the side of the highway I called the hostel in Vik to see if they had accommodation.  Finding the plane took an awful lot longer than I had anticipated and I didn’t have much time to find accommodation.  I didn’t know how far I would make it each day so I just got accommodation on the fly.  The hostel was full and when I went to the hotel in Vik, it too was full.  I managed to get in at a bed and breakfast right before the old lady who owned the place went to bed.  All I had was a bunk but it was prefect.  Me and another late arrival, Craig, got together to try and get some food.  Craig was a talent scout for Sony and had been traveling around following music festivals.  He was here for ATP and was previously in Brazil and Montreal.  Craig and I went to the local gas station which was closed.  But, that didn’t matter.  They opened back up so that we could get something to eat.  I bought instant spaghetti and after the day I had, it was glorious.

Early in the morning I was off again.  Every inch of the road had something new to offer and I found myself stopping often after having gained the confidence of getting the car going again without issue.  I had to always weigh the cost of time as I couldn’t linger in one place too long.  I passed by the glacier lagoon, more waterfalls, and beautiful beaches.  After a few stops I noticed I was starting to get a flat, but I had to keep going to reach my next accommodation.  After driving through Djúpivogur I traveled inland along a fjord before turning back and following the fjord back towards the coast on the opposite side.  Here I pulled into Berunes Hostel which I had called earlier to make a reservation.  It was in a beautiful location all on its lonesome below the highlands.  I had a cot in a windowsill between two rooms with a screen that could be pulled across for privacy.  Really, it was all I needed.  The hostel itself looked like a converted barn.  The attendant, “Alec Baldwin,” told me the nearest place for food (since I had missed the dinner at the hostel) was Djúpivogur, which I could easily see directly across the fjord but would be a 40km backtrack around the fjord.  I was preparing to go back when an older German couple, Regina and Rainor offered to share their dinner with me.  We exchanged stories and it turned out they were doing the entire ring road as well but coming from the opposite direction.  They gave me advice of things to see and I did the same for them.  In the morning “Alec Baldwin” helped me refill my slowly leaking tire.  Thanks Alec Baldwin.  I checked my intended itinerary with him for the remainder of the ring road and whether it was doable or whether I should start heading back the way I came.  He said it was totally doable and with that, I was off.

The further I got away from Reykjavik the less people there were on the road.  Instead, it was sheep on the road.  The highway itself became pretty extreme in a few areas and I came across two young Germans, Phillip and Janik, who just finished fishing at a nearby lake.  They were looking for a ride to a nearby town.  Being a little lonely and adopting the Icelandic trusting attitude, I picked them up.  The town they were heading two was a coastal town in the East, Seydisfjordur.  Apparently some kind of festival was going on.  The road out to it was high and mountainous before quickly dropping back down to the coast.  I had a coffee in Seydisfjordur, popped my head into the festival and took off.  Myvatn was the area I was primarily interested in.  When I finally reached Myvatn it looked like a different continent.  There were conical craters, hot steaming earth which resembled stained glass as the various chemicals reflected the sun, and some of the few trees I had seen.  I checked out a hot spring cave which would have been a great place for a dip except that the water was too hot.  The hot spring cave used to be safe but a previous eruption increased the water temperature and it has been that way ever since.  Pressed for time I essentially ran up one of the conical mounds to get a look inside before running back down and taking off once again.

I eventually arrived in Akureyi where I had a twelve person dorm all to myself.  The next morning I fueled up on Rhubarb Jam, put air in the tires once more and took off on the ring road once more.  My next goal was the sharkman.  I had to veer off the main highway for the first time and I am lucky it was the only occasion.  It was a rough go and I wasn’t sure the car would make it but eventually I got to the sharkman.  The sharkman specializes in making hákarl which is fermented greenland shark.  The Greenland shark is toxic when fresh and has to go through a long fermentation process to remove the toxins.  I had heard various stories of how awful it tasted.  A large tour group had just moved off when I slipped into the shark museum.  I was able to look around for a bit in quiet before the sharkman himself popped his head in.  I paid the fee for entry and got prepared for my first hákarl.  I asked for a bit of Black Death to take the edge off and the sharkman was happy to oblige.  I prepared myself for a mouthful of gasoline but surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad.  At all.  I gave a large grin of relief and had another.  Another large tour group was about to enter and so I thanked the sharkmen and went to find the nearest place to refill my tire before heading back to Reykjavik.

The nearest gas station to fill the tire was further west on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.  However, on Iceland, every detour was welcome as there was always something to see.  I eventually made my way back to highway one and was nearing Reykjavik once more.  I had managed to complete the ring road in a very shotgun fashion.  There was plenty I had to skip in order to make it back to Reykjavik on time but even the drive alone was amazing.  After four days I was completely confident driving the manual.  Choosing to drive the entirety of a country with a manual transmission when I had never driven one before is one of the ballsiest things I have ever done and one of the things I am very proud.  It was an amazing trip.  I made my way to the airport the next day and awaited my return to Canada.  It was an incredibly strange feeling.  After so long and all the flights I had boarded before, this one was going to take me home.  I waited at the gate and another Canadian decided we were going to be friends based on the fact we are both Canadian.  He proceeded to complain about the Keflavik airport and how he thinks Canada is actually much better than Iceland.  He was annoying.  I boarded my plane and hoped I wouldn’t be seated near him.  Thankfully I wasn’t.  During the flight I had incredible views of Greenland and northern Canada.  The entire time I was trying to comprehend the experiences of the last year.  However, I was eager to get back.  To see my friends and share my experiences with them.  Iceland, while amazing, proved to me that the point of memories and experiences are to share them with someone.  I had no one to share my experience in Iceland with and my experiences around Europe are with those friends and family still there.  Not having shared any experiences with my friends back home, I wasn’t sure if they’d understand the change I underwent.  When I landed, my Dad was at the airport to greet me.  Strangely, the entirety of my life over the previous year got condensed and it had only felt like I was gone a short time.

My return to Canada was the greatest culture shock I had.  I think this was mostly because I thought it should feel familiar but it did not.  However, some of it was the result of circumstance.  Almost immediately after my arrival, still horribly jet lagged, I was pulled to a party.  I was told it would be a great opportunity to reconnect and see friends.  However, the only two friends at the party were the two who took me there and they quickly became so intoxicated it was irrelevant whether I was there or not.  I saw behaviour at the party that I hadn’t seen in over a year.  I was alone again, even though I was home.  Unfortunately, this feeling has continued for a very long time.  I had changed and my home had changed.  Or, possibly it had stayed the same.  I’m not sure.  I had friends tell me outright they did not what to hear about my trip, which is crushing after feeling like this has been a monumental part of my life.  Others seemed like they were waiting for the old me to show up again rather than accept me for who I’ve become.  It’s entirely possible some or all of this is in my head, but picking up an old life in Canada has certainly been much harder than starting a new one in Sweden.  Travel is an amazing thing and it opens up your eyes to so much and makes you reevaluate yourself and face your demons, but it is not without consequence.  Two years on and I still often feel like an outsider.  It is no easy task slipping back into your old life when you have changed.  This is not to say I discourage anyone from packing up and going out to see the world.  In fact, I encourage it.  However, it is possible that the life you leave won’t be waiting for you when you get back.  Or, maybe it will be waiting for you but you don’t want that life anymore.  I said experiences and memories are much better shared, and this blog has been my effort to do so.  I wish to go forward having new experiences and making new memories with friends rather than reliving these ones.  My time away was amazing and life changing but being back in Canada has felt very much like being caught in limbo.  Is my old life still there and possible? Or, do I need to start a new life?

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Returning home to my family has been an incredibly rewarding experience.  Having Victoria move to Canada has also been amazing and I love our life together.  I’m still trying to figure things out, but does anyone ever truly have it all figured out?  I’m confident it will eventually work out and I will settle in.  Onto the next adventure…

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