“It feels good to be home,” I noted after Anton had turned back from the railing and joined me to return to the calm warmth below decks.
“Yeah,” he responded tersely, a despondent smile shadowing his face.
I could almost sympathize. It had been ten months as of that day for me. I can only imagine seven years away from family and old friends. In a week, I would be headed home for Christmas, the one holiday I’ve never missed. Anton was truly on his own at this point, having gone through several iterations of annual celebrations in a foreign land.
On the way back to the cabin, I stopped at the duty free shop to pick up a bottle of the famed vodka. As I paid for the crystal clear bottle, I had a pang of awkwardness as I realized that a significant weight of the pack I’d be brining home was spirits. I shook the thought as I wrapped the glass bottles in dirty laundry to stuff them in the expanding pack that had come the better way around the world with me.
With my packed bag, I returned to the lounge to find Anton and four of the remaining passengers reclining anxiously in the deep bucket seats. I leaned the heavy pack against a chair and took a seat opposite one of the small round tables from Anton, who was in the middle of a conversation in Icelandic with one of the other drivers also taking the south road to Reykjavík.
When the conversation lapsed, he turned to me and inquired, “So what’s your plan?”
“Tag along with you guys, I suppose,” I responded flatly with a shrug.
“You know we’re not going to make it to Reykjavík tonight, right?” he noted.
“I know. I’m in no rush.”
“It’s going to be fucking dark out there,” he mused to himself staring out the window at the fjord wall as it passed by slowly. “And it’s going to be icy.” Turning to me he added, “If you want to get there safely, just take the bus.”
“That’s boring,” I retorted. “Either way, at least we’ll have a story.”
He scoffed. “Yeah, a real fuckin’ story.”
The other Icelander started up their deliberations again. I tuned out as the conversation blurred over my head. The snow-covered walls of the calm inlet slid by the window steadily. A road cut along a few meters above the waterline leading past a solitary powder blue house. It was a stereotypical four-window, peaked-roof residence facing the water with a shelter for family vehicle attached to the west side. A tractor and other machinery stood idle but recently used in what would be a front yard, shapeless under a blanket of old snow. Along road, a minivan passed behind the house. It stood still in the window as it rolled along the undulating roadway at the same speed as the ferry. I watched blankly as one stares into a fire, contemplating the solitary life these people must lead. With hundreds of meters separating neighbors along a dead end road, it is conceivable to live for days without seeing another human being. At the end of the seventh week of sleeping on couches and crowded trains, boats, and hostels, my patience for the ramblings and platitudes of replaceable strangers had begun to wear thin. How refreshing it must be to have a place where independence could be assured, where freedom was real, where silence was possible. The house passed out of view, and the car began to accelerate as an industrial fishery began to dominate the shoreline. The ship started to shudder as the engines backed down on the screws, slowing and turning the floating city as the captain eased his way toward the dock.
When the scenery began to steady, we collected our bags and started to make our way out of the lounge. As we emerged, I spotted Tarah and Jack on their way down the stairs and waved hello. Tarah shouted hello in her thick Australian accent, and I paused while the others made their way around the corner to the elevator.
“Did you guys figure out where you’re going?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tarah dragged out with in an ambivalent twisting of her face, “I think we’re just gonna catch a bus to the next place, maybe spend the night here. Did you decide what you’re doing?”
“Alright. Sweet,” I confirmed, “Yeah, I’m headed off with these guys. So, maybe we’ll catch up in Reykjavík?”
“Yeah, definitely. We’ll grab a beer or something.”
“Cool. See ya,” I offered in parting as I rushed off around the corner to catch Anton and the Icelander entering the elevator.
Just as I started to squeeze my way into the small elevator with my massive pack, Anton cursed in the realization that this elevator was not going to take us down to the car decks. I backed my way out, and we turned toward the stairs from where I had just come. As we walked, Anton turned to me and said, “You should just get off the normal way. Easier with customs and everything. I’ll pick you up.”
“Alright. I’ll see you down there,” I confirmed and made my way toward the gangway on this deck.
Tarah and Jack were standing in the passageway near reception looking confused.
“Oh hey, guys,” I joked, realizing that I had just said goodbye.
“Oh hey,” Tarah replied. “Is this where we get off?”
The receptionist overheard the question and interjected, explaining that we would have to take the stairs down to the deck three and exit over the auto ramp.
Emerging from the narrow lower deck stairwell, we entered the cavernous freight bay just as the stern of the ship began to open as the ramp was lowered. Half a dozen cargo trailers lined one end of the nearly empty bay, and a few men in fluorescent jumpsuits prepared the deck for disembarkation.
“Are we sure this is right?” I asked skeptically.
“This is where the guy said to go,” Jack replied in his equally thick accent.
“Ok. I’ll trust you,” I responded cautiously. When I noticed another passenger standing by her rolling suitcase, I figured this was probably the right place. The ramp paused only a few degrees open, but the warning siren continued to blare in its cyclical surging and falling. I shifted the weight on my shoulders and tried to make myself comfortable, knowing that I couldn’t drop the bag on the wet deck. The discomfort had grown commonplace with the hours of such standing with all that I owned hanging from atrophying shoulders.
When the ramp finished its descent, deckhands on shore made their way aboard to help with the unloading. The first one on, walking briskly with a smile on his face, said something in Icelandic. At first, I wasn’t sure who he was addressing, but I quickly realized it was the woman with the suitcase, who was now approaching him. She responded, and when they met, they embraced with a firm hug and reuniting kiss.
Inside the processing house, we met an immigration official who asked if we had anything to declare. We all shook our heads and responded that we did not. He waved us along the passageway marked with “NOTHING TO DECLARE”, and we received a few smiling nods from the other officials waiting idly near their machinery.
As we entered a large waiting room in the shed-like structure, the chairs and tables only useful during the tourist summer season stacked along the outer walls. An old man with severe tremors met us and asked if we knew where we were going. Tarah and Jack muttered something about trying to go south. As the man explained about buses and accommodation in a voice that shook as much as his hands, I dropped by bags on a chair and checked for an internet connection on my phone. There was one, and I opened a message from a potential host in Egilsstaðir, just a few kilometers from here. He had some more information on travel, but he still expected me for the evening.
Hey, sorry for the confusion on about my plans, but I think that guy can take me to Reykjavík. I’m not sure how far we’ll make it tonight, but we’ll probably get past Egilsstaðir. Thanks for all the help!
I started looking for hosts in Reykjavík. I spent a few minutes reading a profile of a twenty-something woman with plenty of references. As I composed the friendliest request I could, I looked up occasionally expecting to see Anton roll up any moment.
Tarah and Jack seemed to have gotten all the information they could from the old man, and grabbed their bags. A woman had appeared, and they were thanking her for her help.
Tarah turned back to me for another goodbye, “Hey, we’re gonna go that hostel over there for the night. Drive safe!”
“Thanks! See you guys in Reykjavík,” I said with a wave.
When I finished the request, I figured customs must be taking a while, but I wanted to have a better idea of how much longer it would be. I grabbed my bags and headed out into the snow-covered street. Walking the 200 meters around the side of the building, I could see the line waiting for customs. The ugly red van with the trailer must be Anton, but he wasn’t moving. It would be a few more minutes. I returned to the warmth and began looking for more hosts.
The old man reentered the waiting room and trembled out, “The last car is coming through. Is this your friend?”
“A big red van?” I asked.
“Uhh.. yes. The van,” he confirmed. “If you stand out here, he can’t miss you,” he said raising a shaking hand toward the sidewalk out front.
“Ok. Great. Thank you,” I said with a smile.
Standing on the sidewalk, facing the garage from which the vehicles had been streaming, I contemplating holding out a sarcastic thumb as I waiting for my prearranged hitchhike. When the door opened, a gold minivan rolled out and stopped in front of me. The window was down, and in the driver’s seat was the Lithuanian man who had shared our cabin. He looked at me with a kind smile as if he wanted to say something, but he lacked the English to give the appropriate farewell. I gave a smiling salute and an “Adios!” and he waved as he drove away.
Now worried, I returned to the building to find the old man in the customs office.
“Was that the last car?” I asked. “Did the big red van with the trailer already go through?”
“Let me ask,” he said softly as he turned and walked deeper into the building.
When he returned, he said, “Yeah, he’s long gone by now.”
And for a moment, I was alone.