Pitstop in Iceland

Despite my efforts, I didn’t get any sleep last night. It seemed the sun had the same insomnia. Out the airplane window, I could see the distant rays of our burning star persisting over the northern horizon. Though the intensity of its glow shifted from west to east as we passed through the night, the bright red band along the perceptibly curved horizon never fully disappeared; it just faded through the rainbow into a deep violet sky above.

When the colors began to fade as we rounded the corner of the earth to bring the sun into view, we were at the eastern edge of Greenland. The boundless sheet of white gave way to the jagged edges of the land, falling away to the sea, frozen in a speckled plane like the spotted texture of blown glass.

Greenland

By the time the shores of Iceland came into view, it was fully daylight. Though it was not yet six in the morning, it looked like the day had begun hours ago. The clear sky gave an excellent view of Snæfellsjökull (Mt. Sneffels volcano) on the northern tip of the huge bay that borders Keflavik. The persistent winds made for a bumpy landing, but we had arrived.

Snaefellsjokull

The tiny international airport didn’t have space for us at the gate, so we shuffled our way down the stairs to the waiting busses. Stepping onto the tarmac, the brisk wind tore through my light jacket with a stiff but pleasant chill. Having recently returned from Phoenix, Arizona where temperatures regularly rose above 110ºF, I was glad to be back in the arctic climate. Being one of the last passengers off the plane, I joined a bus that hardly filled before we zipped across the tarmac, jockeying for position with jumbo jets on the busy taxiway.

With almost a full day before my connecting flight to Stockholm, I bypassed baggage claim on my way to the shuttle bus to Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and the northernmost capital in the world (unless you count Nuuk, Greenland, which isn’t technically a country even though they’ve been granted home rule by their Danish overlords).

The fifty-minute drive to downtown Reykjavík offered an extended review of the country’s barren landscape. The dark volcanic rock often burst through the thin layer of flora, mostly short scrub grasses and lichen. Distant cliff faces seemed stunted in comparison to the towering peaks of the Colorado Rockies. There was no wild fauna to speak of. Indeed, the wildest animals Iceland has to offer are the ferral horses, the distant offspring of the Nordic steeds brought to the island centuries ago. The still-forming island is too young to sport its own animal life and would still be an empty wasteland were it not for the adventuring human spirit that drove marauding Vikings to the island more than a millenium ago.

Despite the epic expanse of this wondrous land, I still didn’t feel like I had left home. I was still just going through the motions of the day, casually finding my way to the bus, being carted along with all the other foreigners toward what has become an international tourist trap of a city. Perhaps it was the fog of fatigue or simply the stress of having left in a bit of a rush just hoping I would be ready for my new life abroad. Though a bit anticlimactic, it didn’t bring down my mood.

Stepping off the bus, I took a deep breath of the crisp, clean air. The steady breeze carried a scent of the clean atmosphere of the sparesly populated island. A bit damp with the saltiness of the sea but still dry like a highland plain, it filled my nostrils with a the pleasant distinctness of being different.

Without a real plan, I set off toward the city center to find coffee that might help make up for my lack of sleep. Stepping off briskly, I fell nostalgically into the rhythm of my stride, like joining in a game of a sport for the first time in years or walking the halls of a familiar building: new enough to demand attention but trained to the point of muscle memory.

Refueled with caffeine and feeling productive after doing my monthly finances, I set off to find an affordable lunch, no small feat in country that imports just about everything. Two cans of beans, an apple, and a bag of rolls would be enough to supplement the few granola bars in my bag and only set me back about six dollars. Remembering the beautiful south shore of Reykjavík’s bay, I ambled down to the rocks to enjoy my simple meal.

smoky bay

A big part of feeling that I hadn’t left home was the fact that I still had my cell phone, and it still worked. Sitting on the rocks, I fought the constant urge to check my device. Only when I had finished did I open my Couchsurfing app and try out the new feature called Hangouts. It showed that there was one other couchsurfer in the area who was looking to meet up (it also noted he was looking to meet up for drinks – it was 11:30 am). A few minutes later, my phone buzzed to let me know he had accepted my request and had sent a message. He was moving his stuff out of a hostel just up the street, so I got motivated to move up there.

I found Sérgio on the edge of a long couch, hunched over his phone, in the cozy lounge of the third-floor hostel. He saw me come in and raised a hand with a smile breaking the dark outline of his bearded face. Before extending his hand, he removed the Ray Ban sunglasses resting in the thick curls of his black hair. He immediately began to explain his difficult situation in his thick Brazilian accent. The hostel had been booked for the weekend, but he wouldn’t have paid the inflated rates anyway. During summer in Reykjavík, a bed in a large hostel berthing often rents for as much as a hotel room in Europe. While he thought through his options out loud, he suggested we move outside to the rooftop patio where he could light a cigarette.

Loft patio

The table we grabbed on the mostly empty deck would be my home for most of the rest of the day. The sun was warm, but the breeze was cool, the view was pretty good for a crowded little city, and I had nowhere else to be. Over the course of the next seven hours, I would play host to a rotating crowd of new friends, who would finally form a dysfunctional little posse at the end of the evening.

 

Sérgio is Ph.D. holding lawyer from Rio de Janeiro, who has found a way to handle most of his business electronically, allowing him to flee his scandal-torn country just in time for the much despised arrival of the Olympic games. Having spent many months traveling through the US, his English is fantastic, and his plans for wandering the globe seem to have no end. Iceland was his first stop in another round of European adventures before working his way down south to the other end of the prime meridian. With plans to work in Germany and a series of countries in Africa, he has concocted an extensive plan to work his way through Europe, to the Middle East, and all way to South Africa. His experience with civil rights and solid English skills open many opportunities with NGO work in developing countries. The pay isn’t great, but he hopes it will be enough to keep him moving for most of the rest of the year.

 

Our next guest was Federico. A tall Italian from Sicily, he was actually surprised I didn’t ask if he was in the mafia – apparently all Americans do. He had come to Iceland a few months ago to follow his girlfriend who wanted to return home. They had met through Couchsurfing when she was an au pair in Italy and he was working as a pizza chef. Now studying hospitality and working at a hostel, Federico is impatiently awaiting his return the truly warm Mediterranean weather and real food. He and his girlfriend have laid out a detailed plan of all the foods they will devour during the three weeks they will spend at his home next month. Despite the cold, though, he is most looking forward to winter and the end of tourist season.

 

Shortly after Federico headed off to work the evening shift, I had the pleasure of meeting my first Greenlander, Josepha (pronounced yo-SEE-fuh). She had me thoroughly confused until I picked up on her very faint accent. Learning her English mostly through American TV and movies like Mean Girls, her California accent is both charming and impressive since English is her third language behind Greenlandic and Danish. On a long vacation after spending a demanding summer running tours of south Greenland, she had settled into a cozy city life in Reykjavík. A revival of adventurous spirit came at a poor time as her series of requests for compatriots on a road trip was met with lost connections and flaking friends. In a fortunate turn of events, her talk of travel got Sérgio excited for a chance to escape the city that had no room for him.

While enjoying the slowly setting sun, Josepha and I were joined by a young lady just looking for a place to grab a beer after work. Birtne had begun pursuing a culinary career after finishing her compulsory education in Iceland at 16. She now works at an upscale fusion restaurant in the ostentatious Harpa complex by the Reykjavík harbor. She proudly explained some of their more experimental dishes like olive oil ice cream and a sweet cake with tomato and basil. The adventurousness of the chefs doesn’t always impress the vanilla tourists, and it’s clear the poor reviews on Trip Advisor sting.

As we were talking, a skinny young guy slipped into the chair across from me, called me out by name, and introduced himself. Since Josepha had recently left to help her friend find the place, I had assumed that this was the friend. Not understanding his name didn’t help either. It took several seconds of both Birtna and Josepha asking to figure out how we all knew each other for me to realize that Kiril was another surfer whom I had reached out to earlier in the day. Having been out of touch for a while, I had assumed he wasn’t coming, and I didn’t recognize him from his picture. Kiril was celebrating his first anniversary of being in Iceland after he had set off from Lithuania where making a living is tough. He’s been making due in Reykjavík as a cook at nearby pizza parlor. He and Birtne immediately hit it off as they discussed local goings on and she leaned in to decipher his accent.

After I had gone inside to charge my phone, almost all of my new acquaintances somehow found a way to converge on that couch. Sérgio returned from a car rental place, Josepha had brought up her friend Nayely, and Birtne and Kiril came in to invite us for discounted pizza. It wasn’t long before we all got distracted as Josepha and Nyely started talking with Sérgio about a potential adventure while taking advice from Kiril and Birtne.

Our posse finally made its way down the street to order a couple pies, where we chatted until the sun started to approach the horizon at nearly 10 pm. By the time I said goodbye, it felt as though I had been hanging out with some old friends at home. Yet these new friends were only strangers until my 18-hour pitstop in Reykjavík.

I struggled to fight sleep as I waited near the gate for my next flight. Not only was I feeling the effects of two sleepless nights, the sky outside was (almost) dark at 12:30 am. After a bit of a delay, a run in with the automated boarding pass reader, and several minutes of trying to stay out of the way of boarding passengers passing my exit row seat, I finally strapped in for the jaunt to my final destination. As soon as the flight attendants put away their materials from the safety demonstration, my eyes closed and didn’t open again until the aircraft shuddered gently in a smooth landing at Arlanda International Airport in Stockholm.