The Northern Lights as seen from Iceland. Photo Credit: Eyal Saiet
As promised from my previous post, I am going to blog about my adventures overseas that I was blessed with throughout the last half of December and first part of January. I am currently going on a third day of being cooped up inside after Portland’s worst snowstorm in decades, so it’s forcing me to finally write and I am loving that fact! Who would of thought that one of the things that I dread most (snow) would bring me to finally working on one of my prized passions (writing)? I will take it. 🙂
So after playing around in the Redwoods for a few days and volunteering at a meditation course for ten days, I headed back to Portland for a quick reorganization of my backpacks before flying overseas to Iceland. My friend Heather was gracious enough to let me crash at her place in Portland for the couple nights before my flight. The day I was to fly out of Portland I decided that it would be a good idea to go on a long run at my most favorite park in Portland, Mount Tabor. As soon as I left her house, my jogging shoes almost stepped on half a globe lying in the street. I kid you not, how synchronous is that? I took a picture of it for proof! I took it as a good indicator that I was on the correct path.
My flight to Reykjavik, Iceland was easygoing, I sat next to a sweet young couple that held hands the whole plane ride and excitedly told me about their plans to rent a car to drive around the whole country of Iceland for nine days of holiday. The 7 1/2 hour flight from Portland to Reykjavik went incredibly fast as I filled it up with movies, music, reading, and a couple meditation sessions. We had a smooth landing and arrived at around 8:00 in the morning. As I embarked on the one hour bus ride from the airport to the main Reykjavik bus hub I noticed that the sun wasn’t even close to coming out. It hit me that I arrived to a country that is notorious for short winter days and it happened to be December 21st, the shortest day of the year….yikes.
My sweet Air BNB host, Dia, picked me up from the bus terminal and navigated the snowy highways cautiously, she informed me that they hadn’t had any snow up until two days prior to my arrival. I felt as if I was back in my homeland of Minnesota, the dark day mixed in with the fresh powder of snow was all too familiar. After arriving at Dia’s house and stashing my stuff, the sun was just starting to come out, around 9:45am. Dia explained to me how to get into town from her place with the city bus that had a bus stop directly in front of her apartment. I had been up for almost 36 hours at that point, but I was so excited to explore that I definitely caught a second wind.
The city bus pulled up in front of Dia’s apartment pretty quick after I arrived, I greeted the driver and plopped down on the warm seat. Hearing all of the Icelandic language being spoken around me along with the grey glow of light peaking through the city bus windows had me pinching the back off my hand to question if I wasn’t just actually dreaming. To me, being sleep deprived upon entering a foreign land is one of the most surreal experiences ever. It was really nice being on the bus and taking in the brand new views without having to worry about driving in the massive amounts of snow.
A view of Reykjavik harbor in the distance
I got off the bus as soon as it entered the main Downtown area of Reykjavik. I marveled at the cute European shops and art murals lining the streets. After walking the streets and just taking in the new culture for about an hour, some hunger pangs hit me. I realized I hadn’t ate a full meal since lunchtime in Portland the day prior. My first stop was at an ATM which involved the ATM eating my Icelandic money back into the machine and there was no phone number anywhere listed on the machine. I went into my head and spiraled a bit thinking, “Damn, it’s colder than Minnesota here and Iceland stole my $80 and I don’t know why I decided to come to Iceland in December, am I crazy?!”
Upon the mini-freak out, I decided to anchor in at a little convenience store and munched on a unique Icelandic cheese panini. I wrote half a dozen post cards and watched the day-to-day workers and students passing by the front window. After eating and calming down a bit, I decided to venture back out into the city. I walked a lot for the rest of that day, getting lost a multitude of times and stopping in to warm up in stores every 20 minutes or so as it had been a while since I have had to deal with below freezing weather.
Anxiety hit me from time to time because it had been a while since I traveled a foreign country on my own. I tend to have a bit of the good ol’ A.D.D. too and sometimes forget that I need to be paying attention to landmarks and street signs since I didn’t have another set of eyes with me. At one point I got so in a trance taking pictures of the beautiful graffiti art that encompasses Reykjavik that I got lost, trying to find my bus stop. It just so happened that a blizzard decided to start at the same time. I didn’t end up bringing my warm winter jacket to Iceland because I knew I’d only be in Iceland 3 days and I didn’t want to trudge it around for the 2 ½ weeks that I’d be in Ireland.
The trippy artwork that inspired me to get lost in Reykjavik :).
I brought out my paper map of Reykjavik from my backpack and after looking at the street signs, it hit me that I was completely turned around. I asked a couple that walked past me in the desolate residential neighborhood I was in for directions and they informed me with broken English that they weren’t from Iceland either. I started to head down what seemed like the correct direction, only to be brought into an even more desolate residential area. The snow was coming down so hard and it was becoming hard to see. My clothes were completely cold and sopping wet. I realized that if I were to have another mini-freak out it wouldn’t help me to get drier or find my way out of being lost.
The neighborhood that I found myself lost in was eerily quiet, I could only here the soft patter of snow landing on the ground and parked cars around me. There wasn’t a store, person or car driving in sight. It felt slightly as if I was in a nightmare that I had created all on my own. Again, my inner child started freaking out in my head and that’s when it hit me that I was forgetting to breathe. I practice meditation not to escape life, but to utilize it as a tool for when difficult situations (such as the one I was in) arise. The breath centered me and I came back to the logical reasoning of heading back from the direction I came from before going further into the void. I came back upon the street where I initially realized I was lost and ran into a human angel that stopped, looked at my map and pointed me into the correct streets to get back to the bus stop.
The bus stop had a warm store near it that I got a hot espresso from and warmed up my bone-chilled body the best I could. I glanced at the clock in the store and it hit me that I had been up officially for 43 hours, instead of further exploring the city, I decided in my sleepless state of mind that would probably be best to head back to Dia’s place. And it’s good I did because I got lost two more times realizing that I had taken two of the wrong bus transfers to get back to Dia’s place. When I finally was on the right bus, my head kept nodding off as if I was a heroin junkie and I almost missed my stop because I was half asleep.
After sleeping for 12+ hours at Dia’s, I ended up sleeping through my alarm and missed catching the tour bus that I had signed up for the day prior that was to take off at 10:30 that morning to a few Icelandic nature spots at the famous Golden Circle. My mind went into spiral mode again “oh mannnnnnnnn, an ATM stole $80 from me, the food has been crazy expensive here, and now they’re probably going to make me pay for a second ticket because I was a slacker that slept through my alarm.” I came back to my breath yet again, “Chill Ilona! Chill! The girl that sold you the ticket yesterday was an absolute sweetheart and she will be a sweetheart about this situation too I’m sure.” I was completely correct on that accord, the girl was super kind again when I got to the tour bus location and she booked me onto the next bus without any extra fee.
Making peace with the bitter cold in front of Gullfoss waterfall.
The Golden Circle was beautiful and jaw-dropping despite the bitter cold. The tour consisted of Gullfoss waterfall, Strokkur geyser and Thingvellir National Park, but it was a speed version of it as we only had four hours of daylight, it made me crave thoughts of coming back to Iceland in summer months and driving around on my own. As we loaded back onto the bus to head back to Reykjavik, the stars looked amazing and the clouds had an other worldy color that for a split second I mistook for possible Northern Lights. I realized that I had only one last night in Iceland and it would be spent in the city, so my chances of seeing the Northern Lights, I was told by many, was slim to none. The tour bus driver informed us that some people come to Reykjavik for a whole week and never end up seeing the Northern Lights, it’s truly all about timing, clear skies, and luck.
Strokkur Geyser doing it’s thang! It goes off every 5-10 minutes. Thingvellir National Park, where you get to walk between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates! They are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimeters per year.
After the bus dropped us off, I walked the city streets unsure of what to do next or where to go, I stumbled upon a delicious Chinese buffet. As I settled in with my Icelandic beer and first mouth-watering plate, I turned my almost-dead phone on, I had just a little bit of battery juice left. I noticed a few messages from a fellow traveler that I met through an online traveling website and had been corresponding with the couple weeks leading up to my trip. He had rented a car and was just coming back from the countryside into the city and wondered if I’d like to go find some hot springs with him? PERFECT! What an excellent last idea for my last night in Iceland, I thought to myself. My new travel buddy, Eyal, arrived to the Chinese buffet at the speed of light and joined me for a drink. After we talked and gained a rapport, I realized I was with a cool human and we started our hot springs hunting.
The first hot springs that we were trying to get to didn’t end up existing, or if it did it exist, it didn’t want us to find it. The second hot springs we came about was in a first ring city right outside of Reykjavik and it turned out to be a foot-soaking hot springs. As we headed back to his car we both looked up and spotted green skies. Wait what? Green skies?!!?! The colors grew thicker and wider and stretched upon the sky as if it was an amusement park light show. It danced and changed length or size. Eyal broke out his camera and started taking time lapse photos. The wind chill was hitting our bones, but at that point the light show above our heads was so wild that I didn’t care if I got frost bite.
By the time the natural light show was over, we attempted to go to one last hot springs, only to find that there was no water in it. I was so completely elated that I got to see the Northern Lights that I was happy to head back to my air BNB without having a hot springs soak. Eyal and I agreed to drive to the airport together the next morning since we both had flights around the same time, only his was to Norway and mine was to Ireland. My host and her husband were home and they let Eyal crash their floor impromptu and Dia packed my backpack with chocolate from an Icelandic chocolate factory that she works at, it was a lovely last night in their home.
Stay tuned for the Ireland adventures on my next blog post! Thanks for reading 🙂