tale #125: Go Do

With my month-long solo trip to Iceland completed and behind me, I reflect on all it brought me and feel grateful that I had the ability and means to create that experience for myself. Alone doesn’t mean lonely. In fact, it is a gift you can give yourself. For when we are alone we become acquainted with our true selves – the beauty and the beast – and when that period of solitude ends, we reenter with a renewed sense of self that is more grounded than ever before. Go do it for yourself. Even just for a little while.

 

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tale #124: the troll on my shoulder (part 2)

I adjust, readjust, hoist higher, and then loosen. By the thirteenth kilometre and as the tenderness in my hips grows,

cairns guiding the way

cairns guiding the way

my initial excitement about the long distance coastal trek drops. If not for the sign pointing to the faint trail, I might have missed it completely. I follow the slightly worn track but have to stop and search for it again when I notice it disappearing. Thirty minutes later, after a few misdirections, I clue in. The stone cairns I keep passing are the markers! Duh!

Another hour later I am ready to collapse and I begin my search for a piece of ground that would be suitable to pitch my tent for the night, however, the lava field I am treading on

a pitchable patch

a pitchable patch

poses a problem. Although rocky, the mossy patches look rather inviting and I contemplate curling up sans tent and relieving my protesting muscles. I convince myself to keep walking on, over the black volcanic rocks, up and down hills, until a pitchable patch emerges.

Eighteen kilometres down and my tent is pitched amidst grazing sheep and I am flattened out on my sleeping bag feeling the warmth of the sun on my recovering body. I boil water for soup, eat, and lie back on my sleeping bag listening to wind rattling my tent, which has been haphazardly staked into the thick moss covering the lava field. I hope it stays put all night.

In the morning I cook up some breakfast, pack up, and launch

the way forward is rough and rife with challenges

the way forward is rough and rife with challenges

my pack up onto my back. I wince feeling the pressure on my tender hips but I soon get used to it, starting back on the trail. It’s a beautiful day for a hike so I focus on that.

The first challenge of Day Two comes when I can’t find a narrow enough section of a stream for me to cross without getting my feet wet, so the shoes and socks come off and I cross in my bare feet.

By 4pm I am at Djúpalónssandur beach among tourists who have driven in to the site where fishermen used to test and demonstrate their strength by hoisting “lifting stones” of different weights ranging from 23kg to 154kg. I learn that those who could lift

Djúpalónssandur beach

Djúpalónssandur beach

54kg were allowed to work on the boats. I wonder about the weight of my pack. I finish my second snack for the day and set a goal to make it to Arnarstapi by the end of the day where there is a campsite, restaurant, and bus stop. So Arnarstapi it is unless I find an ideal spot to wild camp for the night, but the terrain I’ve seen so far makes me doubtful.

From Djúpalónssandur I trek along the coast to Malarrif. At this part of my route I contemplate giving up. My body aches; hips tender, calves tightening, shoulders sore. Anxiously I scan my route looking for a spot, any spot that’ll do, where I can quickly set up my tent and crash. The terrain is inhospitable and I take it as a sign to just keep going, so I do. I last twenty minutes and give permission to myself to take a break so I aim for a mossy patch near the cliffs, release my

Dritvik

Dritvik

pack, and nap for twenty minutes.

I make it to Malariff where the emptiness in my tummy tells me it’s time for some dinner so I set up my gas canister and cooking set at the foot of the lighthouse and eat three helpings of soup and a few spoonfuls of peanut butter to fuel me up for my last stretch.

A kilometre and a half further down the trail I hit the road, and at this point relax a little and thank the universe for getting me through the last 34km without a twisted or broken ankle. All the teetering I have done on the rocks has left me shaken and sore.

Snaefellsjokull, my only companion

Snaefellsjokull, my only companion

I am in the home stretch with 8km to go. It is 7:30pm and the sun has settled low enough in the sky to cast a calming hue over the lava fields at the base of Snaefellsjokull. It’s just me and the mountain now. My only companion. The road is quiet except for the sporadic passing vehicle (when I’m tempted to slip my thumb out but remain stubbornly set on reaching my goal by foot). I hook my hands behind my pack straps which seem to support the weight more favourably. Feet moving one in front of the other, I get drawn into a flow where my thoughts fuse together into a mess of memories and thoughts, both pleasant and uncomfortable, warm and painful.
I pass the road into Hellnar and I know I have only a couple of kilometres left of this marathon into which I’ve conned myself. Whatever is left in me is given to this last leg, and as I

the home stretch

the home stretch

complete my last hill I see it. A town. Tents. Arnarstapi.

I know what completing a marathon feels like and this experience is comparable, except I did this one alone, with no one around me cheering me on or giving me water or offering support. This was a sole to soul effort on my part. Whatever it was, whether an Icelandic troll on my shoulder taunting me to do it or simply my own stubbornness trying to prove something to myself or to work something out, it results in something affecting and profound. I realize that in challenging myself like this I am not pushing myself to get to a new place but, rather, taking the tough route to find my way home.

Categories: Challenges and Realizations, Europe, Iceland, solo travel | 1 Comment

tale #123: the troll on my shoulder (part 1)

Something happened to me when I was up in the mountains in Landmannalaugar and Thorsmork national parks. It came at me, latched on, and I just couldn’t shake it. It lingered and nestled itself into my being, so much so that I knew it was there to stay whether I liked it or not.

While camped out amidst fellow backpackers, perhaps while spooning peanut butter-

the pack

the pack

infused oats into my mouth for breakfast, I observed those backpackers and analyzed their agendas. They appeared more rugged than me and, with rain pants, hiking poles, and pack covers, more prepared for the unpredictable weather that could come. They were preparing to undertake the epic 55km Laugavegurinn trek from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork and then adding another 23km on (just for the fun of it) to complete the challenge with the famed Fimmvörðuháls trek to Skogar. And there it happened. The seed was planted and it was planted deep.

Have you ever learned of something and, without warning, it grabbed a hold you and became locked in your mind to the point of slight obsession?

The idea to go on a long distance trek became lodged in my being. Sounds dramatic but it was that serious. It would be a new challenge and with this new idea realized each moment it taunted me to rise to the occasion, to trek alone between volcanoes and glaciers where I would have to be self-sufficient and preparation is a matter of life and death.

Skálasnagi lighthouse

Skálasnagi lighthouse

The big downer (or reality-hitting moment) was when I did a self-assessment, acknowledged my condition, and noted what I was carrying with me. I resigned to the fact that I just couldn’t do it. Instead of descending into a defeatist spiral, I calmly made a plan to make my newly acquired dream happen at some point in the near future, and I’ll be ready.

When something gets “nestled into my being” that means it’s like a little tiny cloud hanging above my head following me, or in this case (because I am in Iceland) a little hidden person – let’s say a troll for visualization purposes – sitting on my shoulder, reminding me of that thing that I really, really want to do. It doesn’t go away. Restless, rainy days in Seydisfjordur and Akuyeri add fuel to the fire and somehow, at some point, it’s decided. I will bus to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and hike along the west coast with my pack and all I have on my back.


 

perching puffins

perching puffins

Maybe I’m stronger than I think and I can do this and maybe I’m being reckless and unrealistic, are competing thoughts rolling around in my mind on the bus ride to Hellissandur where I change, organize, and repack everything so I can head out on foot towards the coastal trails in Snaefellsjokull National Park.

The first few kilometres are pleasant enough. My pack is substantially heavy but I’m feeling optimistic. It is sunny, quiet, and I have a great view of lava fields and Snaefellsjokull, a towering 700,000 year-old glacier-covered volcano.

trail seeker

trail seeker

I follow the road for 10km from Hellissandur to Skalasnagi, where a cheerful orange lighthouse stands near a bird-filled cliff. I enjoy my first break by snapping shots, even capturing some puffins perched up inside the rocks. I realize when my break is over that launching my pack onto my back demands a greater deal of strength than I had anticipated, so I take the opportunity to count to three and channel all my suppressed anger (we all have some) into pitching it up onto my thigh and then shifting it onto my back. It works like a charm and I am back on the trail heading south…

Categories: Challenges and Realizations, Europe, Iceland, solo travel | 1 Comment

tale #122: to be cool

Okay, I’m not warm enough. I know, I know, I am in Iceland but I did my research, really, I did, and I was expecting above 10 degrees Celsius temperatures during the day. That’s not what I’ve been getting and my frozen fingers and rosy cheeks are proof. Even during the night it falls to near freezing temperatures. Apparently, according to the locals, this has been an unusually cold summer for Iceland, particularly in the northeast. My Mumbai thinned-out blood has been struggling with the blasts of Arctic breeze whipping through my body these past few days. Seydisfjordur, a quaint artsy town in the east fjords, has so much to offer but when there’s a soggy blanket of fog layering the village and the wind and rain tag team in a game of drench and tousle, I give up on a day hike and find refuge in the coziest café in town, Skaftfell Bistro. Now this is something I researched ahead of time, knowing that the weather was not going to be on my side.

Skaftfell Bistro is a simple yet charming café/restaurant that shares a building with an

Skaftfell Bistro and Centre for Visual Art

Skaftfell Bistro and Centre for Visual Art

art gallery and artist’s residence. Weather wimps like me can enjoy homemade specialty pizza and some special menu items (vegan included!) along with local beers and coffees, and there’s the option of playing board games or, if inspired, there are some materials available to flex one’s artist muscle. It didn’t take long for me to fall for Skaftfell’s charm. Not only is the ambiance endearing but also the staff who are friendly, laid back, and conscientious. It is so easy to let the hours pass by especially with all the people watching I can do. It is easy to differentiate visitor from local. Icelanders are pretty easy to pick out. They are usually dressed well and aside from the occasional traditional wool sweater, they look like they just came from fashion week. They push old style baby prams and seem to never stress. They have a way about them that makes them seem … well, cool! Authentically cool. If I must label, this is the land of the original hipsters, if you ask me. And there’s something very attractive about a longhaired bearded Icelandic man who can pull of the wool sweater look. Perhaps it’s my affinity for Vikings. So this has become one of my favourite things to do while travelling alone in Iceland, admiring the Icelanders not only for how they look but also for the way they live (more on this in a later post). Even their accents are beautiful. There’s a wistfulness to it and the way they pronounce their s’, l’s and t’s. Did you know that they can also speak on the inhale? I think it’s a good thing I’m leaving next week, otherwise this fan club I’ve started with myself might get out of hand. Just don’t be surprised if you see me next winter wearing an Icelandic wool sweater. Or better yet, if I’m lucky, with a Viking on my arm.

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tale #121: to travel solo

With a week and a half left of this Iceland adventure, I thought it would be smart to record some of the thoughts I’ve had about this trip before it’s too late and I’m back in the chaotic day-to-day grind of Mumbai life and the memories begin to fade.

If you’ve been following my blog lately you might have been curious about what it’s really like backpacking around Iceland as a single woman in July and on a budget. The following are some of the realizations I’ve had along the way, not just about the logistical journey but also about the personal one …

There are challenges every day. Some might think that backpacking across Iceland is a holiday. In actuality it requires hard work and courage to make it work, especially as a single woman. From figuring out where to find transportation to being vigilant and protective of my belongings, there’s always something to think about, and to think ahead about. Plus, doing it alone means not having that extra brain to help navigate, be an extra set of hands while setting

au natural

au natural

up a tent in the rain, share the load, make recommendations, or reassure.

Vanity dissipates. When I left Reykjavik without bothering to apply makeup, I felt insecure.

Each time I looked in the mirror I would (now I’m going to be honest here) feel unattractive and exposed. Slowly, over the past two weeks, I’ve realized that my insecurity has faded and now when I see my face in the mirror, instead of judging myself against what society deems as beautiful, I see new beauty in the way the elements have left their mark on my face.

A minority traveller. It seems that single women don’t really do this Iceland thing. All around me I see tourists and backpackers (yes, there is a difference) in pairs or groups, with the only singles being men. Couples, there are a plenty, and groups of young adults looking for adventure, but no single women. Where are the rest of me? I have wondered.

Thorsmork National Park

Thorsmork National Park

Solo hiking is free therapy. I have fallen in love with hiking. Not only does it offer grand rewards like discovering hidden waterfalls, walking into baby ptarmigan flying practice, and reaching high peaks with views of volcanoes, streams and glaciers, but (when doing it solo) it is time to just think, to process, to reflect, make plans, draw conclusions, all while feeling the rush of endorphins.

A tent can feel like a home very quickly. Every night since Reykjavik I have slept in my tent. I have loved this experience for many reasons. For one thing, like a turtle, I carry my home on my back and can set up my shelter wherever I decide, and that kind of freedom is exciting. Second, my MSR Hubba Hubba NX tent is super easy to set up, even as a single person, and it’s lightweight (only 1.6kg), which means it doesn’t weigh me down when this turtle moves from one campsite to another. Last, living out of a tent costs significantly less than the next least expensive accommodation option. A camping pass costs between $12 and $19 a night. Let’s just say when adding it all up over a four and a half week period, I’m saving $3,485! Unbelievable right? Have I got you reconsidering your next trip yet?

Hitchhiking feels safe (but it’s still scary). When I first mentioned this concept to others, the wide eyes said it all. Apparently, hitchhiking is part of Icelandic culture and being known as one of the safest countries in the world means hitchhiking as a woman is an option. Nevertheless, I am still a ‘fish out of water’ when it comes to actually sticking my thumb out.

Vatnajokull

Simplicity heals. From the incredible landscape to the sleepy towns, Iceland keeps it real. There are no billboards or chains (except the occasional Subway) or loud noise, just the sound of the wind, trickling of glacial streams, gushing of the waterfalls, and cawing of the sea birds. I am surrounded by simple nature at it’s best, devoid of the distractions that occupy my time and

energy. So in this healing environment, with each breath and step forward, I feel invigorated and comforted by what simply just … is.

Cup-a-Soup is the ideal meal. I’ve quickly learned that it’s essential to keep my load as light as possible while on the move, which means choosing to buy food that weighs little and packs well. Anything in jars or containers just adds pounds to an already full pack, so I’ve discovered the ease of instant soup. I know it’s not the most nutritious meal but for this temporary journey, and in this cold environment, adding hot water to that powder after a long day of hiking is just the ticket.

Moments can last as long as I want. Travelling alone can have its downsides but it also

Not an easy shot to get when travelling solo!

Not an easy shot to get when travelling solo!

means I can stop and linger when and wherever I want without worrying that I’m impinging on another’s plans or preferences. I can soak for two hours in natural hot springs, adjust my settings on my camera to get a perfect shot of an usual flower, or plant my butt on a rock, close

my eyes and just breathe.

Self-timer is my friend. One big con of travelling solo is never getting great travel photos of myself. To get around this problem, I have learned to prop my camera and utilize the self-timer setting. This is not as easy as it seems. I have to make sure the camera is in focus, the aperture and shutter speed are good to go, and there aren’t any dangerous obstacles in my way (I learned this the hard way). To get the jumping shots, now that’s just my secret talent 😉

Categories: Challenges and Realizations, Europe, Iceland, solo travel | 4 Comments

tale #120: when it rains …

Dark clouds form in the skies above. Rain streaks the bus windows and distorts my views of waterfall strips jetting down the craggy cliffs. The high from the Landmannalaugar hiking has left me wanting more, so to Thorsmork National Park I go.

With my research done, I decide on the campsite that will suit me best. It is supposed to rain for the next two days so Volcano Huts, with showers, hot pot, sauna, restaurant, and wifi seems like the best place to be stranded.

We stop at a campsite upon arriving in Thorsmork and I am confused by the bus attendant who tells us to stay on the bus, or did he tell us to get off?

“I want to get to Volcano Huts,” I tell him.

“Volcano Huts? Uh, that’s here, this place,” he confirms.

Reassured, I retrieve my pack from under the bus and head for the information centre to buy a camping pass. There, I am told that I am, in fact, not at Volcano Huts but at Basar, 6km from the campsite I want.

With slight panic I ask, “Is there a bus that I can take to get there?”

“Well, you can take that one.” He’s pointing at the bus I came in on.

I rush to lift my pack onto my back and scurry out of door only to see the bus driving away.

“I guess I’ll stay here.” I resign to the fact that my fate has been decided for me.

The park rangers explain that I can walk to the campsite 6km away. I just need to cross the

crossing over, to the other side

crossing over, to the other side

river twice. It should take me about an hour. The weight of my pack plus the lack of waterproofing gear and my fear of crossing freezing cold rivers barefoot all add up to one conclusion, “I will stay here tonight. One person. One tent. Thanks.” I hand over 1200 krona.

The campsite is basic. There are toilets, sinks, and a shelter. The downside of backpacking becomes quite clear, unlike the fog, which is now descending lower into the campsite leaving me feeling trapped. I give up on the idea of seeing any part of the area and resort to staying in my tent until the rain lets up.

I read for hours, nap, cook in the shelter, retreat to my sleeping bag, and lie looking up at the ceiling of my tent and listen to the plips and plops of the rain falling on my tent.

And then it gets me, creeping in like the dark descending fog all around me, no longer just alone but lonely, and yearning for the conversation that allows time to pass with ease. I miss deep philosophical talks and laughter, and how having another person to share a rained out day turns a miserable experience into a entertaining one. I attempt to ease the ache of loneliness with the thoughts,

this is just one day in many

a temporary moment

tomorrow is a new day

I wake to lighter rainfall and a mud-covered tent. It’s time move, I decide.

I pack up my gear, eat breakfast, and wash the mud off my tent before packing it, and cover my pack with a thick garbage bag.

Back in the ranger hut I ask again about getting to Volcano Huts. I am told of two pedestrian bridges I can use to cross the river. In the sprinkling rain, I head out on the trail. Perhaps I can make it, I consider. The mountains begin to reveal themselves as the fog is lifting, along with my loneliness.

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tale #119: broken plans

When Plan A doesn’t work out don’t stress, because what follows could become a golden memory.

This idea is confirmed when my plan to hitch doesn’t work out and I end up in Landmannalaugar, the highlands of Iceland.

Landmannalaugar base camp

Landmannalaugar base camp

The road to Landmannalaugar is comparable to the landscape of another planet (at least in my imagination or what Hollywood films tend to portray).

Lava fields of volcanic rock and grey ash.

Zero vegetation except for 1000 year-old moss.

I notice the absence of trees just as the 4WD specialty bus leaves the paved road and begins the off-roading portion of our journey. To describe the ascent to base camp as “turbulent” would be insufficient so let’s just say that to venture on without a seatbelt secured across one’s lap would surely ensure a contusion, if not a concussion – which is just what I witness. Poor guy.

Ljotipollur

Ljotipollur

We arrive and a warden boards our bus to welcome us to Landmannalaugar, to point out where to dip in the natural hot springs, where to camp, and where to buy a camping pass. It is drizzling. Downer. If not for the intriguing shapes and colours of the mountains, I would be second-guessing this decision to come here.

After buying my pass and a trail map, I search for an ideal spot to pitch my tent. The ground here is all gravel and rocks so I examine the area for clearer patches; the ghosts of hikers past. After securing my tent, I quickly cook up some lunch, change, pack water and a protein bar, and head out for my first hike to Ljotipollur (Ugly Puddle), known also as the red crater, formed from a volcano and mysteriously full of fish.

It’s not an ugly puddle at all. In fact, a gasp comes out of me when I climb the last bit of mountain and view the red-hued hole with the trout-filled lake at the bottom.

I continue along the marked trail, up steep sections and across snowy patches. I realize it

natural hot springs

natural hot springs

has been hours. Hours of me, just me, in silence, no iPhone music or anything except the scenery and thoughts in my head to keep my attention.

Satisfaction of my hike stays with me upon returning to base camp and while I soak in the

natural hot springs amongst strangers. I know it is late by the time I shower and change. When I check the time I calculate that I sat in the water for two hours, again in silence, just me, thinking. I think about how our day-to-day lives and how so much of our time is used up by entertaining ourselves. Even those moments when we are forced to wait, we choose to pull out our cell phones rather than pause, think, observe, or just be.

In a land as majestic as Iceland, I am invited each moment to “just be” and it seems that I’m taking to it just fine. I am grateful for my broken plans for I have been brought to a new place.

A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving. – Lao Tzu

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(video) tale #118: how mighty it can be

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tale #117: just try

Solo tripping brings things to the surface. One on which I will elaborate is the fear of talking to strangers.

I’ve always considered myself rather outgoing and personable, even going out of the way to make friends with someone new, but when

Colourful Heimay port

Colourful Heimaey port

dropped into unfamiliar territory I am confronted with uncharacteristic shyness and fear. Fear of what? This is a question I ask myself while facing a transportation predicament upon reaching the mainland after my time on Heimaey …

It all works out smoothly. I pack up my gear and walk the two kilometres to the ferry for the 8:30am trip back to Landeyjahofn. I’ve been getting used to my twinges of jealously towards the car-renting tourists who have it easy; can slide back into their 4x4s, apply pressure to the peddle, and be exactly where they want to be without much planning or effort. Then I remind myself that easy isn’t the kind of trip I’ve planned for myself, that I’ve come here to be pushed, not to prove something but to get to a new place of awareness within myself. Nevertheless, I get jealous of those key-wielding ferry-goers.

As my feet touch land and I exit the ferry terminal to see there are no taxis, I am nervous. I round up all the courage I have to do what I’ve been fearing ever since I bought my ferry ticket: ask strangers for a ride.

The sweet elderly American couple I met on board seem like the best bet. They seemed to like me. Maybe they’ll be willing. My heart beats faster and I feel a flutter in my chest as I walk towards where they are waiting for their son to drive round in their rental car.

“I don’t suppose you might have some extra space for me to catch a ride to the main road, do you?”

There. I did it. I asked. Now the worst of it is over. My hopes rise and fall and rise again when the couple and their son discuss me, a “hitchhiker”, joining them in their car. In the end, I am told that the son’s hands are full enough caring for his parents. Understood.

I spot the public bus stand and walk over to check the schedule. Soon I am on my way but now with a change of plans. I hold off from reforming my new plan and, for a moment, allow myself to feel pride in overcoming my fear back at the ferry port. At least I tried.

I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying. – Michael Jordan

Categories: Challenges and Realizations, Europe, Iceland, solo travel | 1 Comment

tale #116: eldfell

My second day on Heimaey (pronounced hey-my) gets off to a late start. If not for the heat of the sun on my tent I would have continued sleeping until past noon. I blame my eye mask, a necessity if one wants a good night’s sleep at this northern latitude but, unfortunately, there is one major side effect: not being able to wake up.

It is 9:00am, and it is a beautiful morning. After a quick shower I set up my gas canister and boil hot water for my coffee and oats. Satisfied with my hearty breakfast (and my efficiency), I head out towards the other side of the island to face its most notorious character: Eldfell.

View from the top of Eldfell

View from the top of Eldfell

Late one winter’s night in 1973, Heimaey’s residents were awoken to discover that one of the island’s volcanoes had erupted, which was totally unexpected. This led to an immediate evacuation of all 5,300 pajama-wearing residents who fled to boats headed for the mainland. The lava destroyed much of the town with the crushing ash measuring four metres deep in some parts. Miraculously, everyone survived. Unfortunately, the eruption lasted for five months and ten days, leaving residents homeless and relying on the goodwill and acceptance of mainland Icelanders.

An almost indistinguishable trail guides me up the slope of the red volcano known as “mountain of fire”. The crunch of the remnant volcanic lava rock under my feet is my soundtrack while I absorb the sun’s rays and think about the people in my life, those in my past and in my present.

Making it to the top – whether a hill, mountain, or volcano – always has its rewards, right? So it would sound cliché to write that the view from the top of

Alone doesn't mean lonely

Alone doesn’t mean lonely

Eldfell took my breath away, wouldn’t it? But what else am I supposed to write? It was truly incredible, with a 380-degree view of the entire island, the box-like homes and buildings and towering cliffs, and even a view of the more recent land extension created by cooled lava from the eruption.

I stay at the top for a while. Tourists – some couples, friends, small groups – stop at the top to take photos or eat from their boxed lunches. I could feel very insignificant and alone right now, I realize. This is a phenomenal place to enjoy with someone. I am okay. Alone doesn’t mean lonely. I stay a little while longer and enjoy it for myself.

 

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