I first became interested in visiting Iceland several years ago when a friend showed me pictures from her recent trip. Despite my passion for exploring foreign lands, this was one country that I’d somehow overlooked. But a handful of photos in and I realized it was a place I definitely wanted to see for myself.
I know the last entry in this blog goes back a few years, but in some ways it ties in with the thoughts I am about to share here. Because this past January my (then) current self made an excellent life choice for my future self when I came across a seat sale for a round trip from Halifax to Reykjavik in late June. (Yes, I am currently living in Halifax now, same fish, different kettle, maybe another day.) Anyway, I was easily convinced that my future self would indeed be very happy with such a trip. So I booked the flight. And proceeded to pretty much forget about the whole thing until early June when I realized I should maybe (at the very least) book a rental car.
Now before you get your hopes up that this will be a tell-all itinerary of what to do with seven days in Iceland, I’ll give you fair warning: it’s not. For that you will need to go elsewhere. But fear not, there are many such blogs available. Instead, this is more about the underlying spirit of my trip. Or, if you will, the answer to the most common question I got asked about it. One that had nothing to do with Iceland at all. The query on everyone’s mind was why are you going alone?
Despite the frequency, I am still always a bit taken aback when people ask this. But at least the answer is simple enough (although I doubt my view on this topic is terribly original). Effectively I view travelling solo akin to partaking in any other activity solo, be it sitting, reading, painting, walking, running, singing. In today’s world we are constantly surrounded by other people both physically and digitally. We are surrounded by their ideas, their needs, their generosity, their drama, their chatter, their love, their anger, their requests, their highs, and their lows. And for the most part, we deal with all of this as best we can, while also supplying them with regular doses of our own ideas, needs, generosity, &c. Sometimes it sucks but by and large, it’s wonderful having friends and loved ones to share these things with. We are a social species, so we need interaction with other humans. But in my experience, we also need quiet and we need space. Because space grants us perspective and allows us to grow as individuals. Maybe it’s an only child thing, but I’ve always felt comfortable taking a step back from the lives of others and just giving in to my own thoughts, needs, and emotions from time to time.
And travelling without a companion is the best way I’ve found to do this. Not because I am travelling alone but exactly the opposite: because I am travelling with myself—with parts of me that I know intimately and parts I haven’t met yet, parts I am madly in love with and parts I regularly butt heads with. I am travelling with my mind, my body, and my soul—all of which enable me to see, react, absorb, and ponder situations in different—often novel—ways. And all of which will change in their own way, at their own pace, as a result of whatever I experience along the way. Travelling with myself helps me understand my initial and most unfiltered reactions to moments of stress, joy, inconvenience, poverty, injustice, and beauty. In the past, it has also enabled me to learn about and deeply examine some of my fears, and to find aspects of strength, resourcefulness, patience, and mindfulness I never knew I had; only when we go beyond our comfort zone can we learn more about own true nature.
As much as I appreciate these basic reactionary insights, on the practical side, there are additional benefits to travelling without a companion. First and foremost in my view is that it makes me accountable only to myself. If I’m hungry, I eat. If I’m tired, I sleep. If I want to visit a specific museum or climb a waterfall, I do. And if I don’t, I don’t. It sounds simple but travelling with yourself really forces you to listen to what your body needs and wants. It also forces you to take responsibility for your actions and decisions, which is something that I feel most of us could do better a lot of the time. There is no one else to blame if I get my truck stuck on a snowy volcano crater or find myself sleeping overnight in a sketchy bus terminal because I missed the last ride out of town.
As is likely evident from my initial lethargy to consider transport and accommodation beyond the tarmac, I also find both great peace and authentic excitement in not having much of an itinerary when I travel with myself. Due to work schedules and family commitments, a lot of our lives are often void of spontaneity and novelty. Of course I realize that to some people the idea of not dividing a day or trip into 30 minute activity intervals might be terrifying. We all approach travel in our own way and that’s OK. But I think it can be good to treat travel differently than we treat our daily lives. And, just to be clear, a lack of agenda doesn’t mean a lack of things I hope to see or do when I go somewhere new. It just means that I prefer roaming without a fixed schedule and that I’m at peace with the fact that I may not see or do them all. It only takes a few delayed flights and a missed train or two to appreciate that being flexible is the third most important travelling skill*. For some reason, people tend to equate a lack of fixed itinerary with missing something. But in my experience, this has never been the case. You don’t somehow lose time or become immobile if you don’t have an itinerary. You just enable yourself to spend time doing something that maybe isn’t in the guidebook. And even with this mentality every trip is different. Sometimes I have a longer list of ideas or potential destinations, but for Iceland, I had just three overarching objectives:
- Spend as little time around other tourists as possible
- Spend as much time in natural hot springs as possible
- See puffins
And, thanks to a self-imposed inverted circadian rhythm, a friend’s suggestion of the Iceland hotpot website, and an absolute hero of a 4×4 that served as my hotel on wheels, all three were accomplished with ease. (OK there was also some luck with regard to the puffins.) Not only did I sail through this list but I managed to cover nearly 2,300 km over the week, mostly in the southern and western parts of the island, largely via loops of differing sizes. Over the course of this journey I was also fortunate enough to find myself in one of the thinnest places I’ve ever been: F-208. (While I have always been familiar with the concept of thin places, the actual term was brought to my attention only recently by a friend, who shared an excellent article about a feeling that is not easily put into words.)
F-208 is a 100 km stretch of road through the highlands in southern Iceland that passes through (the edge of) Vatnajökull National Park and Friðland að Fjallabaki Park. Despite being short in distance, the terrain makes for a lengthy drive as the max speed through many parts is 40 kmh (or less). Beyond being one of the most demanding drives I’ve ever done (I am now quite comfortable with river crossings), it was one of the most surreal and stunningly beautiful routes I’ve navigated. Raw beauty that is seemingly untouched by the rest of the world. It’s the kind of place that you could spend a lifetime driving and never see the same way twice; a place you can’t believe you are seeing with your own eyes to begin with. Unexpectedly, however, smack in the middle of this otherworldly atmosphere I found myself in a location so thick it was as if I’d plowed straight out of the clouds into a vat of molasses. Landmannalaugar. Which I am convinced translates to Land of a million European hikers dressed as Arc’teryx mannequins wielding a minimum of four walking poles each and travelling with large packs in large packs. I initially considered spending some time hiking in the area but was incredibly put off by the juxtaposition I had somehow landed in. So I called it a day and after a wonderful sleep, again hit the road at the crack of dawn (which was, at the time, ~3am) making my way toward Þingvellir National Park. (Not much point in dwelling on it after the fact, but I am still quite at peace with my decision. Now that I know what to expect I’ve decided I’ll go back and do the longer Laugavegur trek instead. With the hope that all the mannequins will be more dispersed and manageable.)
Right. So this is the point in the story where I am actually going to make a suggestion. Two in fact. The first is to take all of what I’ve written above with a large grain of salt. I think most people reading will have realized that this isn’t meant to be advice per se, nor is it meant to be the ultimate outline of how I think everyone should travel. Even if it doesn’t come across here, I really do love going on trips with good friends and family for a whole host of reasons. I was lucky to have the opportunity to start venturing abroad when I was young but it has taken more than two decades for me to fully understand how to appreciate it as much as possible. In my mind, travelling is akin to playing an instrument or sport. Anyone can pick it up, but it takes time, and practice, and patience to become proficient (however you define ‘proficient’). So my second suggestion is to not give in if you have a bad experience. Because I guarantee you will make numerous mistakes, probably in places where the language and customs are not your own. You will have moments when you burst into tears because nothing is going right and when you feel (or literally are) so lost that your shadow has abandoned you. I am a much different traveller to even ten years ago. But I know that travelling with myself has given me excellent insight into how to travel with others. And how to deal with others when I’m not travelling. But of course, more than anything, it’s taught me how to deal with me.
As I said above, the way I travel might be a total nightmare for some. (In the same way that a week at an all-inclusive resort has about as much appeal as a week-long visit to the gynaecologist in my books.) If you want to give my approach a try then I fully support you. But more than that, I support anyone who wants to travel however they enjoy it most. (But just to be clear, I don’t think of getting plastered on a beach in a foreign country as travelling—sorry!) It probably sounds like a no-brainer but my only hard and fast rule wherever I go is to be respectful. When I visit a foreign country—or any place beyond the threshold of my front door—I treat it with as much care as possible. I treat it like my own home. Iceland in particular has had to deal with a substantial increase in tourists over the last decade. It’s a good thing for their economy but unfortunately, a lot of foreigners are acting like selfish, entitled assholes and leaving their mess for locals to deal with. To most people, it’s probably obvious: you wouldn’t shit on the floor of your laundry room, so don’t shit on the floor of a public change room. Don’t leave your soggy swim trunks or garbage in that change room either just because there isn’t a trash can nearby. And it actually pains me to have to clarify that pitching your camp in someone’s yard without permission is not OK. Whether you travel solo or with friends, whether you’re a teenager or a senior, there is absolutely no excuse for this kind of behaviour and disrespect.
And in a similar vein, this also applies to any prejudice you bring into the country you are visiting. If there is one constant to all my travels it’s that people will surprise you, more often for the better. So leave any preconceived notion about cultures or customs or religions when you get on the airplane. Open your eyes when you get off. Every time you travel it is a privilege. You are a guest. Never forget it.
*In my experience the most important travel skill (and probably life skill) you possess is the ability to use your brain. Common sense can literally save your life. So can intuition. The second most important skill (again, verified on multiple occasions) is keeping calm under pressure. Panicking is never going to help in any situation so the more relaxed you can be, the faster you can use your brain (see #1) and the quicker you will get out of a jam. Obviously this is so much easier said than done and it usually requires a lot of conscious and focused effort in the moment.
Lastly, with all the above said, of course if you would like some tips for what to see and do in Iceland I am happy to share. Drop me a line anytime, and I will do my best to supplement your adventure with additional ideas or resources.