Laugavegur Part One: Mystery Meat and Snow in Summer

Laugavegur Part One: Mystery Meat and Snow in Summer

We descend on the picnic table full of cold cuts and giant chunks of chocolate as if we have already been hiking for the past three days. We haven’t. We haven’t even made it ten paces past the bus that drove three hours outside Reykjavik to drop us off at the trailhead. This is our first day of 6 days hiking through Iceland’s volcanic mountain ranges. We’re told this is our lunch time and that we also need to pack a brown bag for any snacks we may want on the trail. It feels like Survivor and this is our last meal before we start eating rat. We attack the cold cuts, the strange unnamed pink meat the color of cat’s tongue, because this is all we know.

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My friend is a vegan and she stares down at the table. Where is her pre-paid special meal? What can she eat? At this point we don’t even know who are tour guide really is. There were three that met us at the buses at a gas station but each one proceeded to tell us that they were not our tour guide and that we would meet them later. We still wonder if we even got on the right bus. Should we be on the opposite side of Iceland by now? We stop someone in a blue jacket with the company logo on it and ask about her food. The woman looks concerned. She passes us off to someone else. The man seems concerned. He is very proud of the fact that there is a gluten-free option. They have gluten-free, right here, see. Kim nods but states that what she needs is her vegan option.

We hoard her a jar of peanut butter that we find, or what we hope is peanut butter. A young man that had not been on the bus finally gets introduced to us as our tour guide, Francois, and he hands Kim a bag of dates. Over the course of the next six days, when cookies are the best friend of everyone else on the trek, dates will be Kim’s saving grace.

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We are here to hike the Laugavegur Trail after all, 34 miles across geysers, rivers, through volcanic rock and over snow-covered hills. Snow-covered hills? This is our second surprise of the day. “There’s snow up there,” they tell us. “Last week’s group had to hike two days in one and bypass the first mountain hut because the pass was snowed in.” Kim and I look at each other and our faces drop. The trekking site advertised this hike as easy. I didn’t even break in my hiking boots. Kim didn’t even bring hers. The group of 8 middle-aged women from Alaska reach into their packs and pull out their gators. “Gators?” We ask. There is no amount of searching through my plaid Coach backpack to find gators. How was I to know that there would be snow in July? No one told me about snow.

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Special points for anyone who can spot the celebrity in the picture above…let’s just say he’s a #prettylittleliar

This is the first lesson we learn about Icelandic tourism. While it’s booming, they might not necessarily be prepared for the influx (don’t tell Iceland I said so, I want to stay friends). Tourism in Iceland has tripled in the last 15 years, with over 998,000 foreign visitors in 2014 compared to 302,000 since the year 2000 (ÓLADÓTTIR, 2015). The bulk of this travel has been in the summer months of June and July (ÓLADÓTTIR, 2015), snow or no snow. While this has helped bring Iceland back from an economic crisis in 2008 (Becker, 2011), the infrastructure to meet the demands of the ever increasing tourists hasn’t quite kept up.

There is still a raw newness to the tourism, as if someone set up a guided tour from their garage, borrowed a friend’s van and said, “Hey, this is a way we could make a few bucks.” And while I honor that chutzpah and the supply meeting the demand, you have to wonder what this will do the Icelandic culture and environment. The number of guides graduating from the Tourist Guide School (This is a real thing. Tour guides in Iceland must be certified…so maybe my garage analogy loses some steam here) has tripled from 2008 – 2010 (Becker, 2011). With the government sponsoring advertising campaigns to lure tourists to Iceland in the off-season, the infrastructure of winter road conditions and subsequent traffic issues will need to be repaired (Becker, 2011). For our internet booked tour, there was no follow-up email. No warning about weather changes. No check-in list at the bus pick up. No organized method of putting bags on the buses. There were wool sweaters though, there would always be handsome wool sweaters in Iceland.

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We are now beginning to wonder what we have gotten ourselves into.

Kim and I had decided to travel together for the first time in ten years. Our first choice was Thailand, but when I made a decision to do a course at Cambridge over the summer, I suggested we stopover in Iceland instead. The flight was cheaper after all and they both ended with the word ‘land.” It only made sense. Yes, one was warm and humid and full of beaches and tanning options while the other was cold and dark and apparently covered with snow year round, but who was paying attention to any of that. We could go snorkeling at both, right? Kim agreed to the switch, “As long as we do a trekking vacation.” I agreed. I don’t know why.

Which brings us back to this moment, pink sandwiches in hand, a full jar of peanut butter and 8 women strapping gators around their ankles while I try to squeeze a plastic bag around my camera to protect it from the impending rain. We were about to hike the Laugavegur Trail.

We are handed black plastic garbage bags and told to bring only what is essential from our luggage for the first night’s stop. We should be able to make it through the snow but the truck won’t be able to get to us if it’s bogged down with too much weight. I think of the clothes I brought, half of them city clothing for my time in England and realize that I will essentially be wearing the same thing I have on now for the next 6 days. That’s okay. I have my favorite, trustworthy, gray scarf. My scarf! It’s not on my neck. It’s not in my backpack. Drat! My cleverness gets me again. I left it on the bus as my impromptu sun shade. I turn to see the big blue bus barreling down the mud road a good mile away from me. Goodbye favorite scarf! You will be missed. I hand Kim my deodorant and toothbrush, a change of socks and underwear and say that’s it for me. I’m not planning on a cleaning myself in a campsite shower in the snow after all. I have standards.

We tie off our shared garbage bag and hand it to our second official tour guide, Gewurztraminer (not his real name).

We have our luggage. We have our lunches. We have our raincoats on minus one scarf. We have our tour guides. It’s time to do this thing! We hit the trail.

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Kim let me borrow a scarf. Good friend!

To be continued…Check in next week for Part 2 and to learn more about the Laugavegur Trail

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References:

Becker, Emily, “Growth and Vitality: The Promise and Risk of Iceland’s Tourism Industry” (2011). Post-crash Iceland: opportunity, risk and reform. Paper 10. http://preserve.lehigh.edu/perspectives-v29/10

 

Iceland minister of industry and commerce. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2016,

    from http://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20160420005627/en/

    Iceland—Minister-Industry-Commerce-Iceland-Enjoys

 

ÓLADÓTTIR, O. &. (2015, April). Tourism in Iceland in figures [Press release].

    Retrieved from http://www.ferdamalastofa.is/static/files/ferdamalastofa/

    Frettamyndir/2015/mai/tourism-in-iceland-in-figures_15.pdf

Recreational Hypothermia

Recreational Hypothermia

Warning: Profane language

I’ve done enough online dating to know the number one question asked when people see the photo above on my profile is “Are you wearing a drysuit?” Yes. Obviously. While I appear to be bobbing like a rubber duck in a glorified pond, I assure you, I would have died without it. The water was only 2 degrees above freezing and located in the chasm between the separation of two tectonic plates in Silfra, Iceland. It is some of the purest water in the world and my best friend and I were about to stick our faces in it.

The second most asked question I get is “Why? What do you even see there?” The short answer would be nothing…if by “see” you mean animal life of any sort whatsoever. You know, the main reason most people snorkel or scuba dive. Trout does exist in the water but they don’t like to be seen too often. Apparently, Kim and I are not most people. We didn’t mind paying almost 200 dollars for the pleasure of spending an hour suiting up and receiving instructions in how to move and adjust our drysuit. Nor did we squawk at the fact that we would only be in the actual water for about ten minutes. We are not complainers! Instead we said “Bring it on!” like the good ex-cheerleaders we are, only to swim at an Olympic speed to reach the end of the course, throw the suit to the ground and try to get our extremities to feel heat again.

I would like to state that I am not an adventure traveler. If you continue to read my blog, you will see that I spend more time being led around historical sites by a plastic frog on a stick in the air than I do scaling mountains or jumping out of airplanes. I appreciate my life. I need my life to be able to do more bus traveling. You can’t see anything if you are dead. This is a fact! (Unless you believe in the afterlife and that angels are looking down from heaven. They can see everything…EVERYTHING! #nevernude…but I am not one of those.) Not being an adventure traveler would assume I am not one to snorkel in freezing water but others could argue that adventure travelers would not be paying anyone to snorkel anywhere tours are involved. They would just do it…f*ck rules #100%pureadrenalinerush.

So being that person somewhere in between adventure traveler and putting the tour in tourist, here is what was running through my head:

This isn’t so bad. I feel like a cork in a bathtub. This suit is amazing.

Oh, we have to look down now and swim. I can do that.

Shit! This water is cold. It feels like an ice bath for my face. It’s good for the skin though, right?

What did she say about keeping my hands on my back? It’s f*cking cold up there…ach…it’s colder in the water. Hands on back it is.

Why am I doing this? Kick your legs Elizabeth! Kick. Your. Goddamn. Legs! (Yes, the cold made me curse like a sailor, as it should! Sailors must be freezing 90% of their life.)

For Christ’s sake, look around! This is what you’re here for.

Wow, the water is really blue…like really blue!

The algae is neon green and sparkling somehow as if there were a phosphorescence to it. It looks like I’ve fallen into an alien planet straight out of Avatar. The gradients of the blue range from cobalt to Ian Somerhalder’s eyes. In the depths ahead of me I see an effervescence of bubbles rising from below. At first I marvel at the thought that this is a natural gas rising between the break in the continents and I am in awe that I get to swim through it, until I realize that it is only the leaking air from a scuba diver below me. I don’t let this get me down. Instead I appreciate the clarity of the water that allows a 100 meter visibility, gaining a view of each rock, every crevice, the delicate tendrils of algae that float like mermaid’s hair, as well as the fins of every snorkeler in front of me. There may not be animal life but it is one of the most surreal landscapes I have ever seen and if I wasn’t freezing my ass off, I would splash around it in all day pretending to a be a sea creature rising from the abyss.

Silfra fissure was created by the separation of the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates. The water is some of the clearest in the world, created by glacial melt from thousands of years ago that was covered up by a volcanic eruption and continually purified by a current that runs through the fissure (SILFRA.org). Our tour guide explained to us that it was so clean we could drink it. I questioned this with all our bobbing bodies in the water, but not enough to not do it. I mean, my face was already submerged in it, I might as well take a sip.

I try to find Kim so that our picture can be snapped together by our tour guide when I see a small black figure off in the distance already emerging on the metal exit gate. This is my friend…apparently the fastest swimmer Silfra has ever seen…at least today. I make my way towards her and we climb out of the fissure. Kim has practically no body fat and she finds that she no longer has use of her hands. Luckily I still do, and after prying my wetsuit gloves off, I warm my fingers by scraping hers off as well. She stares at her hands as if they don’t belong to her body anymore, another strange creature from the abyss. We jog in our feet fins back to the starting point like overgrown penguins. We’ve been promised hot chocolate and cookies. Icelanders must believe they can make foreigners do anything for hot chocolate and cookies.

They are correct.

We help each other strip our drysuits off and get our “summer” layers back on. I attach myself to the cookie bar, while Kim (still a vegan) puts every piece of clothing she brought with her on and hides in the tour van. I catch a glimpse of myself in the van window. My face is a cheery red. I look happy, healthy. My skin looks amazing. Best facial I’ve ever inadvertently paid for.

All photos in water taken by DIVE.IS

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Book Suggestion:

While not about snorkeling, check out Boy on the Edge by Fridrik Erlings. A YA book by an Icelandic author.

How it All Began

How it All Began

When I was 15, my high school English teacher decided to chaperone a literary travel tour of England to stop one of her Senior students from blowing all the money she had saved for travel on clothes instead. I can’t say this girl made the best life choices. She would later sneak out of my hotel bedroom window in a suburb of London to go meet a boy she had met on the Internet and this was before the days of MySpace let alone internet dating…think about that, I will highlight it for emphasis: PRE-MYSPACE! But I won’t judge her because this England trip was the start of all my travels.

While riding around on our swanky E.F. Educational Tours coach around the English countryside, I turned to my teacher and told her my dream had been to always go to Italy (you know the dream I had had for all of 2 long years in my adolescence). I wondered if she could host another tour there. In the way only a teacher can sigh, she took one long breath while staring out the window and responded that she couldn’t even think about it for next year, but perhaps the year after that. (I know these sighs now that I, too, am a teacher. More on that later. That sigh meant, “God, wouldn’t that be great to go to Italy but you guys are driving me to my last nerve and I would have to be an idiot to do this to myself again.” *See girl who snuck out bedroom window from above.)

Luckily, I was a Freshman and I could wait it out and two years was just long enough for my teacher to have post-trip amnesia and plan another one to Italy. This time she had the sense to bring along her teacher friend, Ms. Culbertson. Her reasoning was that with two of them it would be easier. Unluckily for her, boys signed up for this one and there was drinking involved. (Ms. Culbertson wrote a fictional YA book based on it, Instructions for a Broken Heart, check it out.)

Because of the self-sacrificing trips of my English teachers, it was official. I was hooked. I had to travel. I had to add more stamps to my passport. I had to drive around in large coaches where the seats felt like dog hair shaved too close and hotel rooms were always carpeted in a dusty shade of rusted metal brown. For the next ten years, I would sign up for more independent, group travel than one girl in her 20s should (most people would assume tour groups were reserved for the over-60 set). I would choose a profession that allowed me to travel for 6 weeks at a time and sometimes over holiday breaks as well. I would quit waitressing jobs when opportunities came up to go to Caribbean islands for free and give up my car so that all my expenses could go to my next plane flight (the two equaled out in carbon emissions in my mind.)

And that has lead me to here. Writing a travel blog. I have ten years of travel experience, 22 countries visited, a degree in Creative Writing that’s never been used and a love of reading that accounts for the travel book suggestions peppered in as a bonus (I became a Teacher-Librarian, after all). If that isn’t reason enough, I don’t know what is.

Here are the things I will promise to deliver:

  • A quick read once a week
  • A sense of place or at least my experience of it
  • A travel suggestion or two (by way of links)
  • A book to read either about the place or just for fun while you travel

I hope you read Goode Travels with a sense of wonder and abandonment. I hope you enjoy it and have a laugh or two. Let’s be honest, I hope you share it as well, cause we now live in a post-post-MySpace era. More importantly, I hope it inspires you to travel and see the world, hop on an airplane, a rickshaw, a bus and the closest interstate to your home. Get outside, see something new and tell people about it, cause that’s what I’m going to do.