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Day 1

 

How do you react when a dream begins to materialize and when it leaves the comfort of the mind and becomes merciless reality? Me? I sleep like a baby. I startle awake as the drink cart bangs my elbow and knee in quick succession. My seat is reclined to the max and the in-flight movie is, well… let’s just say I hope my other choices for the trip aren’t so disastrous.

What is the color of the Red Sea at dusk? Are there internet café’s in Burma? Do people really live in thatched huts in Africa or is that just a set the documentaries use? Why am I such a fool with the ladies? The world is mystery, shrouded in rumors, and these questions, among others, are why I sit on a plane with quickly bruising elbow and knee. “I’ll take a Coke,” I say when the stewardess returns for round two. The free carbonated sugar inclines me to forgive.

My life is filled with dreams. With half-finished projects, could-have-beens and want-to-dos. I recently graduated from University with an English degree. It was boring. Go figure. I knew all along I wanted to study art (film), but stubbornly stuck with English, clinging to the hope it will improve my writing. I want to make films. I did then; I do now. But it’s scary.
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I chose to travel before real life was forced upon me. Where? Everywhere. But where to start? I spent a month contemplating, only to decide that I couldn’t decide. I’d let fate choose for me. Spinning the globe wasn’t random enough though. I would know: Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere. And really, what kind of a chance would a small country like Lichtenstein have? I went online and was admittedly surprised when I had my choice of several “random country generators.” I shut my eyes tightly and pressed the button. Click. I was to be vigilant. No matter how distant, how obscure, how dangerous, the country. This would be my future. It would set the tone for everything to come. If necessary I would risk my life to do what an obscure website told me. I peeked out from between fingers.

 

 

The Netherlands

“Wow…” I let out an audible sigh. I was sure it would be Iraq or the Congo. I eagerly booked a ticket. And here I am, the plane is landing and I’m reading an article from the in-flight magazine about Australian aboriginals and their custom of walkabout. Apparently, when someone in their society is unhappy or wants to re-evaluate their life, they leave their possessions behind, find themselves a good pair of shoes, and just start walking. They walk and walk and walk, sometimes for years, until they find themselves, sit down with themselves and ask what the hell am I doing with my life? What follows is a profound exchange of ideas between conscious and subconscious, and if successful, the weary traveler will come back a changed and better person. Air-breaks tease me forward from my fully upright positioned seatback as the wheels bump along the runway. I’ve finally arrived – in Iceland.
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“Wait a second,” I hear you say. “You said you’d risk your life to go to the Congo, but you can’t handle a non-stop to Amsterdam?” “Well…” I retort. “You see…” and I trail off. But I did book a ticket to The Netherlands. It just came with a stopover in Reykjavic, and with a little bit of persuasion, I was able to extend the stop to five days at no extra cost. And with that, I share a lesson with you I learned before my plane even left the ground. If you’re too inflexible, you’ll miss opportunities.

As I sit on the bus from the airport an hour out of Reykjavic, adrenaline and coffee pump electric energy through my veins. I look at the land passing by, and I realize Iceland really is a land of elements. Expansive glaciers, active volcanoes, singing wind caves and endless fields of rock are the mainstays here.

With only five days in this land of myth and fables, there’s no time to waste (or sleep). I crack open my trusty Lonely Planet and find a hastily circled passage. The Golden Circle. It’s the tourist event on the island. Normally I’m not one for guided tours, but as I said, time is scarce. The tour hits the big three: Geyser (the one all others are named after), Gullfoss (the biggest and perhaps most dramatic waterfall in the country), and Þingvellir (a beautiful national park).
On the tour bus there’s one other younger guy named Wade, and we begin to talk. He’s a womanizing, Aussie surfer and a veritable bag of clichés and stereotypes. I like him immediately.
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The geyser shoots skyward, two, three, and four stories tall. And it’s not even the big one. Geyser itself has decided to take the afternoon off. Instead Wade and I stand around gawking at its “smaller” cousin. The smell of sulfur permeates our nostrils and steam rises from pools all around us and seeps into our pores. Have you ever heard an entire tour group go silent? A hundred cameras silently burn a hundred photos of white water on white sky to their memory cards. I’m one of them. As the geyser implodes with a final sigh, I have to fight the urge to walk over and touch the pool of water ominously bubbling in its place. But Wade’s a step ahead of me. We move over to a less threatening pool and Wade puts his pointer in without thinking. He yanks it back in shock and shakes his hand dramatically. But his pain isn’t quite enough to let me infer just how hot it is. I hesitantly dip my pinky in and quickly pull it back. Damn! I blow on my pinky and the wind cools it. We walk away with throbbing fingers and no exact temperature measurements to be found but I hear another tourist curse in pain behind us as he tries to take his own. Humans are so strange.

A few minutes down the road is Gullfoss, a huge waterfall cascading into a giant chasm as if it was ripped directly from Norse mythology. To get as close as possible to the mouth, it’s a long slippery decline past young couples, old couples, groups of friends, small families and an Asian tour that jams up on the only staircase to take group photos. It feels a little weird squeezing through people and ruining pictures just to get to the falls a little quicker, but my usual tour group psychosis is in full swing, and I feel as if there’s no time to properly experience the place. A few apologies later I’m free enough to stroll to a lower cliff-edge in the middle of the monstrous falls and let the cool freshwater spray clean the sulfur from my skin. I sit on the rocks and water soaks through the rear of my trousers. I watch the small bugs walk across the wet rock. I’m too tired to philosophize, instead I look up and just absorb. Delicacy, enchantment, risk, freedom, the unknown, tranquility and of course, power. Right there, in one second, it’s everything that I expect to be thrust upon me in my travels. Wade comes to get me. The bus is leaving.

The national park is beautiful, as expected, but unfortunately it comes with expectations set far too high by Geyser and Gullfoss. Wade and I simply enjoy a nice walk along the edge of the valley and discuss events to come. Icelanders are famous all-night partiers and despite having a rather tame nightlife back home, I’m eager for the chance to get out of my shell and well, simply put, meet some girls. We agree to take a quick nap when the bus drops us off and meet up just before midnight.
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But it’s my first day, I’m jetlagged, and I’m still working out the kinks in my brand new watch’s alarm. I wake at 4am in a haze, and I fast become coherent enough to damn my watch with gusto. I’m normally notorious for staying at home, and maybe it’s because of the opportunity to meet girls, or drink, or socialize, or maybe just missing the possibility of new experiences, but I can’t get back to sleep. Wait, I think to myself, it’s Iceland and it’s only four. Everyone will still be there. I sit up, nearly ready to get dressed and go, but for some reason I don’t have the energy to stand. My lungs deflate and with it so does my strength. What’s wrong with me? Wade will be happy to see me. I’ll just make a joke about my new watch. But what if he’s moved on to a different place? I want so much to have the courage to do something out of my normal routine. To party in Iceland with the midnight sun. My head does a freefall into the pillow, and as I rest in bed with my eyes wide open, I realize I don’t know anything about myself. I’m not even sure I like myself, and to my surprise I’m not really travelling the world at all. I’m on walkabout.

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Iceland is quickly turning into European’s hottest spot for wonderment and geothermal activity. Not only is the country equipped with an emotional landscape full of volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, and caves, it also boasts a nightlife on the weekends fit enough for the most modern-day Viking party
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Reykjavik, the capital, is where all the action takes place and it’s only a five hour flight on Icelandair from Boston. There are an array of lively bars and cafes located in the main shopping area on Laugavegur Street and on the roads off of it.

I stayed at the Hotel Fron on Laugavegur and I was less than a block from a handful of bars like Sirkus, Pravda, Oliver’s, and Nelly’s Café, which is known for having the cheapest beer in Iceland. And believe me I took full advantage of the chance to save. Although the city has a great variety of tourist activities, the price you pay for food and alcohol is sinful.
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Viking, a premium golden lager that has a hint of malt, maize and hops, is the best selling beer in Iceland, with the draft version being the most popular in the pubs and restaurants. Its lightness and sweet taste caused me to drink so much I think I saw the ghost of Leif Ericson – and that wasat 600 kronas ($8) a pint with 5.6 percent alcohol content.

Most locals counter the expensive beer prices by consuming a lot of alcohol at home before they go out. The bars and clubs are open until five a.m. so nobody heads out until midnight. Their pre-game drink of choice is Brennivn, a type of schnapps made from potatoes that is referred to as “Black Death”. I took a shot of it and I found it to have a bitter taste of Drano with a hint of cardboard.

Going out to eat in Iceland, although expensive, is well worth it. The country has the freshest, untainted fish in the world. The swordfish I sampled at Vegamot was the best I have ever had and the mountain lamb at Café Victor was as tender as the hearts of the beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed women I had to break upon my departure back to Beantown.

Between my partying antics and affluent dining habits, I was able to take a few quick day trips with local touring company Reykjavik Excursions. The must-see destinations in Iceland are Blue Lagoon, a luxurious spa with geothermal seawater known for its positive effects on the skin, and The Golden Circle, a collection of historical sites that include The Kerith Volcano Crater, The Gullfoss Waterfall, the geysers of Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park.
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With a population just under 300,000, Iceland is one of the least crowded countries in the world. It also has the longest life expectancy, no pollution, and the cleanest drinking water, which you can get right from the tap or even a stream.

For a truly unforgettable vacation you may add Greenland to your Iceland visit. After all, Greenland’s East Coast is only a two hour flight away.

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“Hurry up, June,” said eight-year-old Carol. “We don’t want to be out here when it gets too dark.” Carol shifted in her Girl Scout uniform while holding her sister’s hand. Carol and June, two siblings living in the southwestern region of Iceland, had left early in the afternoon to sell Girl Scout cookies around the neighborhood, but after a few short hours, it was already evening. Carol suggested they walk across an untouched clearing covered in snow to go home.

“Are you sure this is the way home?” asked four-year-old June hesitantly. She didn’t want to walk across the entire field to find out they were going the wrong way.
“I’m positive,” Carol said firmly. Her tone seemed to reassure June, so they continued trampling on wordlessly. Several moments later, WHOMP! Carol and June sailed through snow and dirt and landed in a pile of more snow and dirt. Little did they know before passing the huge untouched clearing, that it was a construction site.

I still remember it took me a good ten minutes to stop crying while my sister was gleefully laughing at me (she tends to laugh hysterically when she gets nervous). When I finally managed to climb up out of the hole and when I reached down to grab my sister’s hand, I fell back. After another period of crying, my sister climbed out and pulled me to safety. We made it home cold, but alive.

Living in Iceland; albeit only for a year, opened many doors to encountering unique experiences that I would have never experienced had I lived elsewhere. Living in Iceland was no doubt a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. Remembering the smoky grey mornings that I woke up to and the long walks to the library through the crunchy snow still ring clearly in my mind after seventeen years. Though I was only there for a year, it will take a long time to erase from my memory.
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My experience living in Iceland is perhaps very unlikely to occur in most families. My family moved there from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when my father was stationed in Keflavik, Iceland during his career in the United States Army during 1987-1988. My sister was eight, while I was only four. My memories of Iceland are nothing but amusing. I was old enough to remember all the adventures my sister and I had yet young enough not to go to school and partake in learning.

We lived in an apartment that rose high above a hill and during the winter season, we would take our sled, trek up the hill, and fly down the hillside. Many kids our age lived in our apartment and though there was the problem of a language barrier, we still had fun playing with one another. Their native tongue is Icelandic, which descended from the Norse, but they also speak English, Danish, French, or German.
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Because Iceland is located near the North Pole, we rarely saw daylight in the winter while in the summer, we rarely saw the nighttime sky. In the winter, the sun came out around ten in the morning and set around three in the afternoon. During the summer, dusk came late into the early morning and the sun re-appeared around five in the morning. For a few summer months, we actually had no night sky. It was a rather peculiar lifestyle for all of us.

Only forty-five minutes away, we made frequent trips into the capital, Reykjavik, one of the cleanest cities in the Western world. My mother absolutely adored the little shops that sold David Winter Cottages, so she always took me into the stores while I shyly followed behind her, chewing nervously on the ball of my knitted hoodie.

Reykjavik is a colorful and spacious capital with many treats to offer. It holds museums, theatres and opera houses, orchestras, cultural restaurants, and many more exciting things. Iceland is a spectacular island that is home to beautiful mountain ranges, gigantic glaciers, and blue lagoons. Living abroad was a unique experience that I will forever treasure. If traveling to Europe, make sure you stop by Iceland to view its gorgeous landscape and beautiful culture!