From the Womb of Blue Lagoon

From the Womb of Blue Lagoon

I have a twin. Her name is Kim. We were born holding hands at the age of 34, fully grown women, twenty fingers, twenty toes.

Okay, let me back up.

The year was 2015 and we were in Iceland, floating in the warm water of the Blue Lagoon and we had just been reborn.

This was not some sort of religious experience where we found Christ or a scientific experiment where we had our cells rejuvenated. No, this was simply one of the best massages we had, or probably, will ever have. It was the Blue Lagoon’s in-water massage.

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Upon entering the Blue Lagoon spa, you are given a waterproof wristband that allows you to order food and more importantly, alcoholic beverages, while you are soaking in the 100 degree F water of the geothermal plant run-off. There are two things that I would like to point out here. #1) The Blue Lagoon is not a natural wonder. It is a man-made complex that is a by-product of the energy company that drills the earth for its geothermal heat and energy. That does not mean that it is bad for you (quite the opposite) or not one of the busiest tourist attractions in Iceland for a reason. #2) Alcohol makes everything better.

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Another unnatural, man-made effect is the combination of alcohol with hot water. When soaking in a hot tub or hot spring or geothermal, silica-bottomed lagoon and drinking champagne, you will get drunker, faster. I was feeling it and I was feeling gooooooood!

Go rub some white silica on my face and swim around with it for ten minutes, sure.

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Go swim back to the other side of the lagoon to have a free photo taken, why not.

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I particularly like the creepy dudes photo bombing us in the background. 

Go to the least crowded area and sit on the bottom of the shallows with a champagne glass in hand watching the people come and go, sounds like my favorite thing.

 

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Swim through every nook and cranny at least three different times to make sure we hadn’t missed anything, like the speakers announcing the history of the lagoon in English in a Playboy mansion-like grotto, check.

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Oh I was enjoying it all and no amount of pruned fingers would get me out of that communal bath tub.

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And three hours later, it was time for our massage.

You swim up to a gate where your massage therapist comes to greet you and lead you into the private massage area. It is not covered or outside the lagoon, only separated from the regular hullabaloo. You then swim onto a floating mat where you are covered with a large towel and told you may lower your bathing suit if you want. Okay, why not? (Read my previous post to see that nakedness doesn’t bother me as much anymore.) And then the massage begins.

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If you follow that path all the way to the end, you hit the massage pool.

It’s a combination of natural spa products being rubbed into your skin at various levels of scrubbing and being dunked down into the water whenever your towel begins to get cold. Your body is cocooned under the wet towel and a smaller towel is over your face and eyes so even though everyone can see you, you cannot see them or anything else for that matter. You are in an amorphous water dream that consists of a strong woman rubbing your body and being consecutively dipped and dunked into the warmest, most comforting water you have ever experienced.

At some point you flip over for your back and at another point you are wedged into the lap of the women massaging you for a neck and head massage but in between all of this, your buzzed brain can only conjure up one thought and one thought only. I am in a womb. This is what it feels like to be a baby. There is a reason we enter the world crying. Who would ever want to leave this?

But just as the contractions of labor squeeze out the last of the amniotic fluid from an infant and shunts it out into the real world, our therapists pushed us out into the waiting pool to transition back into real life. During the hour duration of our massage, Kim and I have not said one word to each other. As we both float into the waiting pool, our hands meet and we sit there silently, clasped together. I have not made one peep about my womb theory when Kim turns to me and says, “We’re twins. We were just born.” I am too relaxed to laugh. I nod my head in agreement and squeeze her hand. There is probably more truth in that statement than anything either of us have said all day…or maybe it just feels like it from all the champagne and dehydration. Either way, I am happy to have her as a sister.

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To read the rest of the Relaxation series, click below:

Part One- Hot Springs Time Machine

Part Two- Bathing Beauties

Laugavegur Part Four: Reflections around a Bonfire

Laugavegur Part Four: Reflections around a Bonfire

We were officially crashing the tour guide, after-hour bonfire. It was a total “I carried a watermelon” moment. I had half a beer in hand, given to me from Germunder’s private stash, precious like miner’s gold. I wish I could have shown up with more, or brought firewood or something that would have been helpful. Instead I brought my tourist-ness, the scent of paid trekker.

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Germunder…have pipe, will travel.

It felt like a 90s comedy trope when everyone stops what they are doing and all you can hear are crickets chirping. Kim and I looked at each other. We looked at Francois, trying to beg him with our eyes that he was sure it was okay that we had followed him there. We’d been following the man for five days. How could we stop now? We looked around the campfire at the half circle of teenage Icelanders with dreadlocks and bulky wool sweaters. One half of the circle was empty and Kim and I decided, well we’re here, we may as well join. We grabbed a wooden bench and scraped it across the stone and pebble strewn riverbank creating a similar trope of the loud sound that continues to bring attention to the outsider. More blank stares. “So come here often…to this remote mountain hut that took us five days to reach?” We give up and decide to only talk to Francois about being Belgian and living in Iceland.

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Francois cooking up some porridge on our first morning. 

Francois hops over to the river and pulls two more beers from the cold water. Polar Beers. If I wasn’t in love with Iceland already, it was official now. Fantastic Fun Fact: There was a prohibition on strong beer from 1915 until March 1st, 1989. Imagine if Boardwalk Empire ended when you were 7 (for those of us born in the 80s) rather than 50 years before. My high school years would have looked a lot different and I probably would have gotten into UC Berkeley like I always wanted to.

As I sip the beer sitting by the fire, I take a moment to soak this all in. It’s our last night with our trekking group. A bottle of Glenlivet is passed around the circle and I take a slug of it. I’ve earned this. With the blaze of the fire warming my feet and hands (I’ve transitioned to wearing flip flops with socks when not hiking), I take a moment to reflect on all that I’ve seen and done:

I’ve walked around 50 miles (Germunder kept adding on “short,” two hour additions to our planned itinerary), half of that with an infected foot (confirmed by the doctors in our group). On one detour around the side of a mountain, Germunder stopped us to see the dew that collects in the leaves that grow along the ground. He told us that it is sweet and good to drink. Kim instructed me to bend down and try. I got down on my knees and stuck my face into the plant, sipping up the sweet dew. It was surprisingly refreshing.

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Germunder giving context to the scenery around us on another of his detours.

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I saw a number of changing vistas, the Álftavatn Valley was one of my favorites in particular.  Beautiful wouldn’t even be strong enough of a word. Majestic, transcendent– none of them can quite do the Swan Lake and the valley around it justice. What was once brown and white from either steam or snow becomes a landscape of emeralds, sapphires, an ombré of blues and greens running into each other and spilling over cliffs. It’s as if the land responded to the change in scenery tactilely as well. Suddenly our feet felt like they were walking on the moon (or what I imagine it to feel like at least). The closest Earthly approximation I can make are those playgrounds made out of recycled shoe rubber that make you feel like you have the ability to jump ten feet in the air and be absorbed again by the ground as it dips and swells underneath you. The ground was covered with a soft green moss and it made the perfect place to take a short nap overlooking the view of the lake and valley below.

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One member of our group decided it was perfect timing to fly a kite because when isn’t it. And she wasn’t wrong. The wind was strong and we laid our bodies even flatter to the ground to try to escape the tumult of wind. Your body is always warm when you hike, except when you stop. The second you stop the wind and chill creep in like the demonic baby of Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre [if you’re not already a GoT Fan: Spolier Alert]. Kim took to doing push-ups, tricep dips, lunges, anything to keep her body warmth up when the rest of us stop to eat cookies again.

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This wasn’t the first time we visited the moon when we hiked in Iceland. Before entering Ermstrur-Botnar, the group crossed the basalt sand flats. The perpetual daylight of Iceland’s summer is well-known but what you don’t realize until you’re there is how much the prolonged daylight changes your perception of what’s around you. We hit the basalt flats around 5 in the evening but the light hits us at such a strange slant that is spreads long shadows out along the black ground so that we don’t appear to belong to this planet anymore. The hikers in our group are tired and spread out between smaller groups of twos and threes. As I trailed behind them, I can’t help but imagine them as astronauts trekking across untouched stellar plains.

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Everything here is shaped by volcanoes one way or another. The jagged canyons that shape the rivers have striations along the cliff sides formed when hot lava met glacial flow, capturing the rock like a flash going off in a dark room. One minute it’s flowing and the next there is hard rock, strange patterns, a thumbprint on the landscape.

After crossing the basalt flats, the trail started to resemble something more familiar. What you could call regular rock outcroppings, sloping hills on our sides, green plains…except for the giant mountain in the distance that seems to have a horn. At first it’s ruggedness almost made it look demonic, like an aged witch enchanted it with a curse and was hiding a princess at the tip, but when told the name you realize it’s another kind of magic all together. The mountain is named Einhyrningur which means “The Unicorn.”

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You can see it in the distance as we move closer, almost like a rhino creeping up on us from the bush. 

And that’s what this place is, magic, magical. 54.4% of Icelanders believe elves and fairies exist after all. There must be something to those numbers.

The fire has warmed us now, as has the liquor. Everyone is chatting in one language or another and no one seems to notice or think we don’t belong anymore. We find out half the people at the bonfire aren’t Icelanders or tour guides either. They’ve come to volunteer and do trail restoration. It’s their first day in the country. Maybe one of them will find their Patrick Swayze. This isn’t my fate though. Iceland has another sort of magic saved up for me. We say goodbye to the hikers, the tour guides, the Icelandic teens, the volunteers. Goodnight to the fire, the river and its cold beers and volcanic stones. We say goodnight to the almost-dark non-night of the Icelandic summer. We head off to bed and get ready for our departure across the Krossá River in the morning

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And then we are gone. We forded the river safely. No flash floods. We’ve lost half our crew to other trails, other buses, but the elves have something in store. The giant bus has taken us to a parking lot to wait for another bus to take us back to Reykjavik. It is freezing outside. The wind speed is too much to handle and I refuse to get off the bus until the next one is there. The driver has left the door open and Kim and I decide to move towards the back to stay away from the wind. As I stand in the aisle, something catches my eye. There is a different pattern on the wall, something doesn’t match, like one of those kid’s games where you try to discern what has changed between two pictures. I turn and see that my gray scarf is dangling from a hook, camouflaging itself into the carpeted wall of the bus. It is hanging from the same hook I placed it on only 6 days before. It’s a miracle (ok maybe not a miracle, but damn special at least). The elves have left me a final present. I believe this was their way of saying goodbye, of wishing me well on my last days in Iceland.

First and last day on the bus.

If you want to read about trekking and adventures on your own Icelandic hike, I would suggest picking up The Lord of the Rings and being grateful you don’t have ring-wraiths on your trail while you walk.

 

Laugavegur Part Three: Putting the Ice in Iceland

Laugavegur Part Three: Putting the Ice in Iceland

When we finally come down from the snow-peaked mountains, there are rivers. Rivers meandering back and forth across the landscape everywhere. All those ribbons of water mean river crossings. On the first day that I properly bandage my blister, I’m told within an hour of leaving the hut that I have to take my shoes and socks off and cross a frigid snowmelt. By the time I make it across, toes a burning red and pins and needles attacking my ankles and shins, the duct tape holding my moleskin and band-aide to my heel is flapping at the side of my foot and small pieces of black volcanic rock are flooded into what’s left of the skin on my blister. But this train doesn’t stop, so I wipe the water and rock off with my sock, put my hiking boots back on and push off with the rest of the group. Only to come to another river crossing…and then another. Are there no bridges in this country?

 

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I learn bridges are only reserved for the real white waters such as over the Syðri-Emstruá river, a canyon I have no plans of rappelling.

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Sometimes the icy rush of the stream feels good on my heel. Other times I contemplate leaving my shoes on and just rushing like an angry bull through the water.

Sometimes there are ice bridges. Francois gingerly steps out on the blue and white path, shoving a hiking pole as safely into the snowpack in front of him as he can to test for the strength and depth of the ice. He motions us to walk over it one by one, bypassing yet another rushing river.

These rivers can be powerful things.

In Þórsmörk, where we will all be picked up at the end of this trek, the Krossá River has movable bridges. The glacial river changes everyday and quite suddenly.  The bridges need to move to accommodate the people who cross it for hiking trails on the other side. The structures are on huge monster truck wheels and moved according to where the water is the deepest at that particular moment. This ever-changing water way is also the road for the departing buses. The hut keeps a photo album of all the buses and vans that have been picked up by flash floods. This does not distill a sense of safety or comfort for our future departure.

When we started the hike, the rivers were gurgling cauldrons of hot spring, sulfured water. The scalding water pipes steam up from the ground and depending on the direction of the wind, flows around the hikers as we march.

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As we move down the mountain, the water becomes more idyllic as it follows us through valleys and emptying into lakes.

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Other times it is tumultuous, livid, gushing. Or beautiful. Falling from cliffs and spilling down into canyons that spread below us, making bridge crossing feel so much more treacherous than having to dip our feet into some cold stream beds.

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On the third day, I become so sick of taking my shoes off that I travel down the river bank looking for a thin spot in one of the turns to jump across. Kim’s feet have been soaked and freezing every day as her shoes are not weather-proof and she has taken the just-walk-across-the-river course of action. I find a spot that I think will work and toss my pack to her on the other side of the bank. She places it on the dry ground and holds her arms out to catch me if need be. She cheers me on like the good friend she is. We watch our group down the river calmly stripping their shoes off and crossing like the dutiful hikers they’re trained to be.

I back up to get a running start. I assess the speed and clearance I will need. I swing my arms back and forth because for some reason I think this will help. I take a deep breath. It’s only water, after all.

“Okay, here I come!” I yell as I dash off to take my leap.

I am not athletic. I have a blistered foot. I’m padded down with layers of clothes and have been using every muscle in my legs for 10 hours straight for three days…but somehow, I make it! Kim clutches my forearms and my front foot sinks a little into the muddy river bank but otherwise I’ve cleared the river.

My adrenaline is pumping through me. We laugh so hard and are in so much shock that I made it that we momentarily forget how to high-five and flap our hands at each other in the air.

I look back. The gap in the river was probably 2 ½ feet. I’m still impressed. I grab my pack and we walk on. Rivers can’t keep me back. I’m a river beast!

By the last day on the trail, the temperature has increased dramatically and we have all stripped our clothes to the minimum that is allowable while traveling with others. Pants come unzipped from thighs and calves (oh REI), thermals tied around foreheads to block the sun. The river is mainly rocks now and puddles of neon green algae, yet somehow still wide enough in parts that we still have to ford it barefoot. I now understand why the packing list suggested river shoes. If only I had known what those were at the time.

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On the day before we leave, Germunder (his real name! It took me three days but I finally learned how to pronounce it) takes us on one last “short” hike around Þórsmörk. He wiggles us around the hills and paths between the two mountain huts in the area. We divert off the main trail and follow a low flowing river. This time there will be no crossing. We follow the water until we meet a cavern full of large boulders. We don’t stop there. Germunder leads us on, climbing over the large rocks that look as if they’ve been shaped by giants. He grabs our hands and pulls us over. After passing the rocks, we duck down onto our hands and knees to slither through the cave entrance. We find ourselves in a small, natural cathedral. Green moss drapes the rock walls and purple flowers dot the ground. A thin trickle of water flows from twenty feet above us and we position ourselves just so, letting the water spray around our faces and fall into our opened mouths.

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“This is the Singing Cave,” Germunder tells us. The Alaskan Eight stand up near the entrance of the cave while Kim and I take pictures in front of the waterfall. “The cave is known for it’s good acoustics,” Germunder continues. Without a second thought, Kim launches into Lean on Me. I join in. Our Alaskan ladies don’t miss a beat and before you know it we fill the singing cave with so much song we drown out the water. The song swirls around us. This is it. This is our last moment together. We leaned on each other when we weren’t strong. We had pain and some of us visited sorrow. We definitely had to swallow our pride. Francois and Germunder quite literally gave us their hands multiple times on the trail. This is the magic of Kim, always knowing the perfect song for any given moment. We finish out the chorus and we all stand there for a moment. I let the water splash between my fingers. It’s almost as if you can hear us all exhaling a collective sigh. Slowly, one by one, we exit the cave.

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“One patriotic song followed another, echoing from the mountain in the hush of early autumn evening, till the loon ceased crying from the lake, greatly wondering…the last song, in praise of the country life, resounded from the marshes as a farewell to the people of Summerhouse.” -Halldór Laxness, from Independent People, the 1955 Nobel Prize in Literature and awarded to an Icelandic author

Next week is the last post about Iceland for awhile. We’ll move to another part of the world after that.

I’m experimenting with when to post. Leave me a comment and let me know when you’re more likely to see or read this blog. Has it been on the weekend? Mornings at work? After you get off on a weekday? I’d love to hear about when is best to send out a new post.

Laugavegur Part Two: The Things I Carried – Iceland Edition

Laugavegur Part Two: The Things I Carried – Iceland Edition

Disclaimer: While I completely understand that comparing my time in Iceland to a hellacious war is both in poor taste and inaccurate…I continue with my comparison anyways. If it offends you, you can refer to this post by the runner up title: What Not to Wear – Iceland Edition

Kim carried a red paisley backpack full of dates and confiscated rye crackers. She would crouch behind a lava rock the size of a small cow to stay out of the wind, place her wool gloves in her pocket and nibble on the crackers, counting how many she had left before we made it to our next mountain hut for the night. Sometimes others wanted to eat her rye crackers, not knowing this was the only food she had. She watched them like lions on a kill, devouring cookie after cookie, chocolate bar after chocolate bar, while still coming after her one and only snack, the rye crackers.

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Elizabeth carried her designer backpack loaded with an iPad, a ceramic coffee mug, a water bottle, a journal, a bagged lunch, a borrowed scarf, gloves (bought in the gas station before the hike started), sunglasses and a slew of other things no one should ever plan to carry on a trekking trip. Her Canon camera dangled from her neck covered by an unwieldy plastic bag to save it from the intermittent rain/snow. Depending on the strenuousness of the climb, her thin layers were peeled off and hung from the straps of her backpack so that she looked like a pack mule that had never left the paddock before. She dreamed of when she would no longer be wearing her brand new hiking boots, comfortable on the first day but by the third, they had produced a blister on the inside of her left heel the size of a nickel. Each step a reminder that the body was a fragile thing, wishing that humans produced pearls when irritated and not skin bags full of pus and blood.

To carry something was to hump it.

Dr. Alaska carried bandages, moleskins, duct tape on her long metal hiking poles. She carried with her a knowledge of healing that would come in handy when Elizabeth’s blister popped and Kim’s feet were frozen from the snow melting in her hiking shoes.

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.

Ann and Dan carried wine. It came in a box and didn’t need to be chilled, already cold from the wind and snow that still clung to the hill. By the third day, wine was needed. By the fifth there was no question. The hikers were willing to pay 40 dollars a bottle, or 5000 Icelandic krona, for red wine worth 5 dollars at best. But they were in the middle of nowhere, what were they suppose to do? Hot chocolate could only sustain them for so long.

Francois and Gerrymander (not his real name) carried the recipe to lamb stew, the path we followed on the trail, patience, an ear to listen, plodding steps, a truck that held the group’s luggage and a knowledge of Iceland and which ways to divert the trail. They also carried beer.

They weren’t prepared for the shifts in weather. Among the clothing they had brought were yoga pants, thin hiking trousers, a raincoat made for humid weather, a scarf – lost, a sweater bought in Cambridge, a spring coat, sport bras, wool socks and a beanie. Their river shoes were plastic flip flops and canvas tennis shoes.

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The Laugavegur Trail was 55 kilometers of terrain that moved from spongy dirt hills precariously hovering over hot springs that smelled of rotten egg to snow-peaked lava fields peppered with obsidian the size of soccer balls.

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After 5-7 hours of walking a day, each mountain hut was welcomed with the flourish of a seven year old to a cupcake table. The shared bunk beds were a respite, two campers sleeping head to toe, barely moving, for once their body met the mat, sleep soon followed. The huts were heated. The trekkers felt secure inside their warm wood room. They watched the snow flurry outside the window, tent campers digging into the snow banks reaching for the dirt ground below to place their tent for the night. Those in the mountain hut did not grumble. They were overjoyed. They watched the scene of the summer snow storm unfold before them like reality television, each tent camper with their own story, their own troubles. There were the men trying to get their bunsen burner to light to make their evening porridge. The couple that couldn’t get their tent to assemble in the middle of the night and secretly slept in the entrance way where the trekkers shoes were stored. Some tent campers carried whiskey, clutching it to their bosom to stay warm through the night. Others begged for a bed in the warm room.

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In the morning, small white and black birds darted in and out of the giant holes left behind from the tents like astronauts visiting craters on the moon. The landscape was blanketed in white for miles, fresh, unmarred by footprints or visitors. They would carry themselves across this landscape, following wooden markers in the snow and trusting in Francois and Gilgamesh (not his real name). How had they come to be here? The white blinding and all around. Their truck of belongings barely able to make it over the hill, tires whirring and sinking back down into the snow. They were trekkers. They carried day packs and water bottles. They carried pink sandwiches and peanut butter. They would carry on.

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(I know I promised more information about the trail…but I had too much fun with The Things They Carried literary homage. If you haven’t read Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece, you’re missing out. Pick it up immediately and carry it on your next adventure.)

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.