I seriously considered recapping Iceland with a blog entirely consisting of crazy cool nature pictures. Zero words. Because I have no words for a country that met and exceeded my expectations in the most glorious fashion.
Even after talking to multiple people who had experienced Iceland before me, the country still awed and surprised me with every waterfall, glacier and twist and turn on the remote highways.
Iceland seemed so foreign, wild and unique to me. It’s not your typical European vacation destination (though it’s gaining popularity very quickly). You hear that it’s wild and beautiful and cold and expensive but you don’t really know much about the place.
And that’s because it’s an impossible place to accurately describe. It’s a place that catches in your throat, makes you start and stop, and then finally stutter a “you just have to see it” to a disappointed inquirer.
From the quaint magnificence of Reykjavik, to the intimidating snowscapes of the Westfjords, to the intense beauty of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, I’m overjoyed to take a quick look back at the country which, so far, has had the most massive impact on me.
Again, words and pictures can’t really do Iceland justice, but let’s make it easy on me and start from the top: I flew in to Keflavik (40 minutes or so from the capitol Reykjavik), cruising over the dark ocean and ghostly white fields. I was so curious the entire way there — and even more so after landing — for just what this place would have in store for me.
I hopped in a shuttle to Reykjavik, hailed a cab (absurdly expensive – my first true taste of how deep one’s pockets have to be in order to survive a trip in Iceland) from the main bus terminal and rode out to Seltjarnarnes, an area on the outskirts of Reykjavik where my couchsurfing host lived.
After pulling into a creepy gravel parking lot full of what looked to be abandoned warehouses/junkie dens, I had to call my host to verify that I was in fact at his place. Sure enough, Jon picked up and said he would come outside to meet me.
As promised, Jon came to the door and led me inside. To my amazement, he had rented a massive warehouse with an open floor plan but absolutely covered in shelves of novels, photos, artwork, his guitar collection and endless tobacco pipes. It turns out Jon has quite a cool pad, a very musically-talented family and no bad bones in his body.
I got to know Jon fairly well in my two days staying on his couch, and had some great chats about Icelandic politics, his family’s musical background, his photography hobby and his past as a tour guide (he once kicked Mark Zuckerberg and his fiancée out of his private tour, leaving them stranded in the middle of Iceland, because they were being rude).
I spent the first full day of my trip walking around downtown Reykjavik and taking in views of the harbour, some prominent churches and the seemingly endless nightlife options. There’s just some kind of charm about downtown Reykjavik that makes you want to wander, eat, drink and mingle, even if it is a tiny area by most standards.
That evening (sidenote: in the summer, it doesn’t get dark…maybe “dim” around 1 a.m., but just barely), I went to my first Couchsurfing meetup and chatted over beers with a ton of cool people from all over the world. I met two filmmakers who are working on a school project comparing the green habits of Iceland versus those in Singapore, a musician from Santa Cruz, an Icelandic coder who hates every movie except Terminator 2 and many more. The whole group ended up at a few bars afterwards, and I’ve managed to keep in touch with a handful of the people already – looks like I’ve added some contacts in Philadelphia, Poland and Germany!
Friday brought with it sky-high anticipation. It was finally time for Saga Fest, which I’d purchased a ticket for months ago. In case you haven’t seen any info about the festival that I’ve posted, my friend from Washington State University, Scott Shigeoka, had a crazy idea while freestyle rapping in a cave in Jordan a couple years ago. He wanted to find a way to bring community, sustainability, art and music together into a single event in the most magical place he could find.
From there, Scott fell in love with Iceland and its Saga history, moved there and began working towards achieving his dream. And finally, after so much hard work and dedication, Saga Fest was born and had its first iteration just outside Selfoss, Iceland on Stokkseyrarsel Farm.
Around 500 curious festival-goers, local Icelanders, volunteers and friends of Scott’s pitched tents and dove headfirst into a mysterious festival that more than lived up to the hype. Between fantastic musical acts from all over the world, inspiring workshops on yoga, meditation, storytelling and a million other things, and truly creative artistic installations, everything about the weekend just felt perfect.
I came away from the festival with a few things: first, a renewed sense of self and a different kind of connectivity to people and our world. Second, the inspiration to do more, better work in a variety of fields that have always interested me. Third, and definitely most importantly, a group of new optimistic, ambitious friends who I grew very close to in a short amount of time. There is no way to write about all these amazing folks and keep this blog succinct, but I met filmmakers from D.C., rafting guides from Arizona, students from New York, businessmen from Toronto, musicians from Sweden, artists from Germany, Semester at Sea alumni from all over the U.S., and many more. Quite an impressive range of personalities, talents and backgrounds.
I’ll have to go into Saga Fest in more depth in a separate blog, but just know that it was an incredible experience that Scott totally nailed. I feel so lucky to have been a part of it (especially the first one ever), because the pure bliss and beauty it poured into me is impossible to ignore.
After the festival ended and everyone said their sad goodbyes, I made my way back to Reykjavik to pick up a two-person campervan I’d rented before getting to Iceland. My new friend (and tentmate from Saga Fest) Jonah, joined me. Then we picked up Linh and Jayden, from Melbourne, downtown and the four of us squeezed into the tiny van and began an epic trek up the west coast of Iceland.
First stop, after a long day of driving, was a hot spring overlooking a beautiful ocean bay, high up in a remote area of the Westfjords. We camped there that night and then continued our route the following day through massive mountains, along sketchy backroads and past more waterfalls than we could count. After a brief stop for lunch and hiking/birdwatching excellence in Látrabjarg, we finally arrived at Dynjandi, which is a massive, majestic waterfall cascading into a stream that feeds into a jaw-dropping fjord. Scoring that campsite on night number two was something to be proud of (see timelapse at the top of this blog).
On the way back out of the fjords the following day, we were lucky enough to pop a tire on the van and change to the spare in the middle of a wind and snow storm. Keep in mind that “wind and snow” in Iceland is not the minor annoyance you get in the United States. Simply put, it was beyond brutal.
But, we finally succeeded and got the spare on there. Unfortunately, the spare was a bit weathered itself and popped, oh…five minutes later? So there the four of us were, stuck in a tiny campervan on a remote Icelandic highway wondering how the hell we’d ended up in that predicament. Luckily, Jonah had enough cell service to make an emergency call to the company, and Jayden had a laptop with The Royal Tenenbaums queued up while we waited for more than two hours for a tow.
One movie and a few pounds of snacks later, the tow driver arrived. He let us stay on the back of the flatbed while he towed us the two hours back to town. Between naps, we marveled at the view from such a height and enjoyed the savings we were undoubtedly getting on gas. Despite the frustrating tire issues, it turned out to be quite a fun bonding experience, and we got a new set of tires to take us the rest of the way shortly after.
The following day was spent driving around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which was described to me as “all of Iceland’s beauty packed into one place.” I can’t say I disagree. We spent hours scrambling up a glacier, exploring frigid caves, walking the black sand beaches, snapping photos of huge mountain ranges and relaxing by waterfalls.
After Snæfellsnes (or “Snuffaluffagus” as I kept calling it, because how the hell do you pronounce “Snæfellsnes?”), we headed back towards Reykjavik because Jonah had a flight out late that night. As a last-minute relaxation and cleaning technique (you don’t know dirty and wet until you spend three days camping at a music festival and four days hiking through Iceland and sharing a tiny campervan), we ponied up for the famous Blue Lagoon.
No matter what anyone or any online forum tells you, the place is absolutely worth every euro. Massive hot springs, saunas, steam rooms, mud masks, beer…what more could you ask for? Don’t miss the Blue Lagoon if you ever get the chance to visit.
After dropping Jonah off, Linh, Jayden and I headed to a park to camp for our last night and then did a quick tour of the Golden Circle (huge waterfall called Selfoss, the original geyser appropriately named Geysir, and a few other must-see stops) before returning the car in the afternoon. Linh had to take off for the airport that evening, so Jayden and I sent her off and wandered over to our hostel.
We stayed in on Friday night and cleaned up again, finally relaxing and stretching out in our own beds for the first time in a week. On Saturday, we explored in Reykjavik, did some work in cafes downtown (I did a full load of laundry for the measly sum of $31 USD) and then headed for one last night on the town. After a couple happy hour beers (the only affordable way to drink in Iceland if you miss the liquor store, which closed at 6 p.m.), we met up with some Saga Fest folks, Rebecca and Lizzie (aforementioned Semester at Sea alumni from Pittsburgh and Kansas City, respectively), at a bar downtown. We were eventually joined by Amber (Philadelphian couchsurfer from many paragraphs ago!) and her friend Arnar, who is a local musician and had an amazing voice and infectious personality.
Many (MANY) drinks were had, laughs shared and dances attempted in a few different bars. We ended our night at the city’s main “queer bar,” Kiki’s, and finally stumbled home around 4:30 a.m. (yes, it was still light outside) – only after trying one of Iceland’s world-famous hot dogs.
On Sunday, Jayden and I got packed as we were both flying out late that night, and then went downtown one last time to meet up with another Saga Fester, Sascha, who is about to start grad school. We shared a delicious meal and ice cream with Sascha before heading back to the bus terminal to get on our shuttles to the airport.
Even nearly a week later, I’m not sure I’ve fully processed my time in Iceland. I know it was an unforgettable trip and I know it really, deeply affected me in many ways. But — and I write this fully aware that this blog has exceeded 2,000 words and a highlight reel of pictures — I still can’t really formulate a way to describe the feeling I had during my time there and the immediate longing I felt for the people and the places that I encountered.
All I know is I’ll be back for a longer trip someday, and will certainly be heading back to Saga Fest for round two. Iceland really should pay me for all this free advertising, but just get your ass up there at some point in your life, rent a car and let yourself be amazed at the world we live in.
What a ride this has been.
I’m writing this on a train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, and will have another update soon, encompassing Germany, Denmark and Sweden! Stay tuned.