*All pictures are unedited.
A few nights before we left for Iceland, we watched Into The Wild. We used to glorify that movie in high school, applauding the protagonist for copping out of society and carving his own path. Thing is, we never finished the movie and the message was lost to us until recently. “Happiness only real when shared” were the last words Christopher McCandless wrote. As empowering it is to be independent and self sustained, it’s also incredibly lonely. After backpacking and camping for two weeks, I relished in the city vibes when we got back to Reykjavik on culture night. People have a spark to them, an elastic sort of energy. The children running around holding cotton candy cones, the teenagers drifting through the alleyways on their skateboards, old couples salsa dancing on the street. I think Christopher didn’t have something against people but rather, against convention, against the roles and identities we constrict ourselves to so willingly. They may make us comfortable but stress our differences and ultimately divide us. Traveling enables a blank slate, an open invitation to connect. There is no character to play besides “students travelling on a budget” and that’s only so they know we are harmless. Most days, it barely took an hour to get a hitch; we found that when we made ourselves vulnerable to the universe in this manner, it was quick to respond.
“How do you feel about tourists” I ask an 18-year-old who picks us up. He laughs and bluntly replies “hate ’em”. I learn that he liked doing chores on his family farm until they had to turn it into a guesthouse to make ends meet.
I throw my pack into her car and break a picture frame. Not the best introduction. But all she cares about is making sure I don’t get cut on the glass. The journalist in me crawls out again and I ask her the same question. “They never used to charge money per person for setting up your tent at a campground” she tells us. “Some hotels even charge for bottled water now and claim that the tap water is not pure which is a blatant lie. It’s ridiculous!” she says, “This isn’t like my people and I am not proud of them”. When Iceland’s fishing industry collapsed, they turned to tourism. Some campsites even charge for showers and electricity. With Iceland already being such an expensive country, it’s hard to differentiate exploitation from a country simply trying to protect the value of their krona.
Some Icelandic folk frown on the flourishing tourist industry; this summer, a third of the people on the island were tourists and it’s bound to keep increasing. Others simply remind us to respect the land and don’t go into the wild unprepared or we might end up like the two German boys who went to explore a glacier and were never heard from again.
I’m in Hofn right now- it’s an island in the southeastern part of the country. We’re in front of a gas station and I’m waiting for Sarah to finish mapping out our route. You’d think we would see less tourists because we’re no longer on the mainland but nope, all this town consists of is expensive hotels, tour buses and guides. This is the 18-year-old boys hometown. I get it now. I too, would hate to see my home fade away in order to better accommodate somebody else’s vacation.
Strolling through the campsite makes me feel like I’m in a literal global village. All the different languages and accents. All the different age groups. The trust people have in eachother, how cellphones and laptops are left charging in outlets without anyone keeping watch. I stand by the door in the common area, waiting for someone to leave so I can grab their table. “We’ve been here for a while and nothing has cleared up” says the girl beside me. That’s how we meet Sam and Giulia. A conversation that begins by talking about Canadian accents ends up traversing to life in Cape Town, casual alcoholism and music festivals. It’s refreshing to hangout with girls for a change since the only females who pick us up tend to be motherly figures. Sam is a bartender in Chicago and she gives us some Brennivan, an icelandic spirit made from potatoes that tastes like ass. They let us in on their tip of drinking before bed to retain heat. “What an amazing idea” Sarah and I drunkenly agree. The nights in the tent are uncomfortably cold. On more than one occasion I’ve woken up shivering to find Sarah applying first aid to her frostbitten toes.
My fists are balled up in anger and I grudgingly walk back to our tent. My vision is distorted. It’s the end of the day and my contacts have slid halfway down my eye. But it is also my anger that is playing a part in distorting it. I look towards the sky. Beautiful ribbons of cascade pink and orange make for the prettiest sunset I’ve ever seen yet I can’t seem to appreciate it. I feel bad – mother nature is putting on a show and here I am, stuck in trivialities. But she shouldn’t have talked to me like that. Maybe I’m pmsing. Stop that Sareema, quit discrediting your feelings. What the fuck, it was a stupid fight over laundry! Exactly, it was just laundry, why was she getting so worked up about it? Why am I getting worked up? Ugh. I’m on such a short fuse right now, I better wait this out before I talk to her or who knows what’ll come out of my mouth.
You know how people say that travelling is as much a journey inwards as it is outwards? What if it’s also a journey backwards. We found ourselves realizing that maybe we weren’t as chills as we thought we were. Since we needed to tackle a certain amount of miles per day, we tried adhering to a rough plan. When we were behind schedule or our bodies were giving out, we projected our frustrations out onto eachother. I began noticing what I was doing and felt ashamed for my violent decline. All my spiritual teachings had gone down the drain despite being submerged in nature. When my skin started feeling like a too tight suit, I acted as fickle as a child and put the blame on wobbly hormones, coffee crashes and stress.
I enter the tent quietly and don’t look at her. The gameplan is to stick with the silent treatment and go straight to bed. “Sorry” she says. I raise an eyebrow. I didn’t see that coming. “Thanks, I needed that” I reply. She bursts out crying. Fuck, I never know what to do when people cry. I crawl over and hug her. We talk about deeply entrenched fears of ending up like our parents and how we can both sometimes suck as people but we’re working on it. That night, we open up our sleeping bags and lay one out as a mattress and the other on top as a blanket. We go to sleep cuddling. This time, the cold doesn’t wake us up.
This shit is too spiritual and I belong in a fucking casino. No good intentions to be found anywhere. We’ve been stuck in this tourist trap of a town for two days and I desperately want to leave. I doubt the universe will work in my favor today. Drivers only stop when you least expect it, and never when you’re mentally heckling them.
Hitchhiking: when the kindness of strangers becomes the only currency you can rely on. If we hadn’t been broke and reckless, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this trip half as much. That’s because the brochures are too damn poetic. Powerful landscapes. Land of fire and ice. Majestic mountains. Breathtaking waterfalls. When they tell you how to feel, the connection to nature is no longer personal and the wonders get reduced to being just eye candy.
I never felt jack when we visited the sites we had planned out so meticulously. But I did feel something when the Icelandic villager told us that the baby trees we were driving past were once barren ash fields. It was refreshing to see reforestation efforts instead of nature being cut down to build houses. I felt awe when people told us what volcanoes were due to erupt or that the Inukshuk-like structures outside our window were hundreds of years old and helped Vikings find their way through the fog. We would have never visited some lowkey incredible places if the locals that picked us up hadn’t told us of them. They were eager to share not only travelling tips but intimate knowledge about the land and I soaked it up like a sponge.
On the Brink of Insanity Part 1: I desperately fling a can of cold baked beans at the road. It’s all we have to eat and we have no can opener. “That’s never going to work. What’s the sharpest thing you have?” says Sarah. “My wit” I reply. We burst into giggles, forgetting for a minute that she and I are slowly morphing into the same person. She is in my field of vision 24/7 and I barely recognize my own face when I look into the mirror. I kneel and start scraping the lid against the floor. A chunk of road hits me in the face and I am taken aback. Ring road, the main highway that goes all around Iceland, is literally just tiny pebbles stuck together with cheap sticky tar. No wonder the tourists drive so slowly. Sarah runs across the street and starts jumping into the grassy craters to confirm the majestic landscape won’t ripple like a water effect if she touches it. She disappears for 5 minutes and the eeriness takes over. The mountains are so loud on the eyes but quiet to the ears. It doesn’t feel real, the sheer bluntness of the land. She comes back panting and I break out of my trance. “I have confirmed that we are not on the Truman show and I am not fit” she says. We start sorting pebbles and occasionally getting hopeful that the next Mercedes or Bentley is stopping for us. But of course, they are turning into the hotel a few meters from where we stand. It’s the only speck of civilization for the next 3 hours and it’s grossly expensive. Looks like we’re going to be wild camping tonight. Now if only I could get this can of beans open…
I stick out my thumb and do a little jitterbug hop in despair as the first car in 20 minutes drives by. It works. We scramble into the back and greet two teenage boys who are coming back from a weekend of partying in the city. The road is empty and the 18-year-old drives at 150 km an hour, a sharp contrast to the cautious 40 most people drive. Maybe I’m tired but I trust him. He grew up in these parts, he has a natural feel for the road, I tell myself. I try not to think what would happen if a sheep stumbled onto our path. I look out the window at the sky, which is a translucent pink. The car is quiet with the driver tapping his finger on the wheel to the beat of a slow indie song called “Automobile” by Kaleos. I can’t feel the wheels on the pavement. We are soaring.
Sarah and I decide to skip out on the glacier lagoon. We have to set up our tent before it gets dark and landing another hitch today will be near impossible. Half an hour later, we make a sudden stop. The driver overheard us talking and here we are, at Jökulsárlón. We get out in excitement and I manage to get a sneak shot of him throwing pebbles into the water.