Covid returns, tourism departs – keep calm and carry on!

July was a fast and a furious month of summer living in Iceland, and with the borders open, covid was just as quick to return. Its been amazing to watch how adaptive, and respectful, society is, picking up where things left off last time, but this time with less hysteria. Covid living has normalized somehow, and hopefully others also feel the anxiety melting away as real life keeps keeps on keeping on.

It seemed like a blurry dream, when things were just getting better and better and everyone had almost forgotten the 2 m rule, but instead of taking the next step to open up more (people were so excited for concerts, street festivals and late night bars), the 2m rule rule and a gathering ban returned.

a mini brekkusöng – a bit of music festival feeling on Heimaey with my relatives (and Víðir!) during goslokahátið on the 4th of July

Þjóðhátið on Heimaey in the Westmann Islands was cancelled, which was probably simpler than trying to hold it for only 5,000 people when the regular attendance is closer to 20,000. Weddings and baptisms have been delayed for a second time, realistically not earlier than September or October. Airwaves in November has little or no chance of being organized, and worst of all, Gay Pride and Menningarnótt will cease to be in 2020.

this was the hardest hotspring to find in the westfjords

Hiking and natural hotspring hunting continue, and my one and only horse trip as a tour guide just barely slipped thru the cracks – two weeks later and it wouldn´t have happened. A mandatory 5 day and double covid test requirement will kick in August 19, deterring the majority of tourists to come visit Iceland at all.

kayaking is solitary and socially well distanced

I had gotten used to kayaking, biking and horse back riding alone, or in small groups, and the covid friendliness of those activities made them feel extra familiar to return to. I didn´t miss the lines to the swimming pools, but at least the swimming pools stayed open this time.

Nauthólsvík, before the gathering ban rule returned

Nauthólsvík beach is a charmed destination, in any weather, and fishing on the sea or on a river bank also does something for your sanity. Water is a type of landscape therapy to me, and it makes me feel less stranded on this island.

Westfjords and yoga

Guðný and I lived together all winter, but rarely saw each other due to work, travel and other normal things pre-covid life. When summer came around, she moved back to her countryside farm and we had to make a 3 part summer adventure plan to make sure we wouldn´t miss eachother too much.

a bonfire for the summer solstice in Önundafjörður

Part 1 took us to a yoga retreat in Önundafjörður, hosted by the lovely Iris and Andrea behind jógabíllin, the yoga campervan that drove around Iceland in May giving everyone free, outdoor yoga classes. We stayed at Hotel Holt Inn and practiced yoga on the nearby pier, and extended our stay in Önundarfjörður with an extra night at Flateyri. There we stayed in the most beautiful home, a recycled work in progress by the talented designer Halfdán Pedersen.

´fishing´at Flateyri harbour

To drive all the way to Flateyri for only a weekend was ambitious, so we added a few nights of adventures before and after the yoga retreat. We started on the southern and western ends of the Westfjords, bathing 3 times on some days in natural hot springs. Our first dip was at Guðrunarlaug at Laugar in Sælingsdalur.

Rauðisandur at 11pm

We camped at Rauðisandur beach and spent some time with the birds at Látrabjarg. We weaved our way thru all the small towns, Patreksfjörður, Tálknafjörður and Bíldudalur, and stopped for amazing coffee at Simbahöllin in Þingeyri.

the cliffs at Látrabjarg

We visited Dynjandi, more than once, and camped another night at Selárdalur after visiting Hrafnseyri, the museum dedicated to Icelandic hero Jón Sigurðsson.

sunset at Selárdalur

On our way home from the westfjords, we shortened the drive by taking the ferry from Bjarnslækur to Flatey, where the ferry Baldur would continue on with our car to Stykkisholmur, but we could jump out for the night and stay at Hotel Flatey. The weather was misty and cold when we checked in, but it didn´t discourage us from going for a seaswim. T

our view from Hotel Flatey

he next day was as sunny as summer weather gets, so we held a pop-up yoga class and invited the whole island. That only too a short walk, and with a turnout of nearly 20, it was almost 100% attendance from the island´s inhabitants.

The fall and recovery of Covid-19 times in Iceland, summarised so far

The rise of a pandemic in Iceland was awfully creepy, watching the city of Reykjavik first, then the whole country, spiral into one big ghost town. We never made it to complete lockdown, but as the number of cases ticked higher and higher, our voice of authority Víðir pushed us off the streets and into our homes. The first public hit was March 15, when a gathering ban was put on meetings of 100 people or more. This affected some events and some businesses, but people took it quite light heartedly. Then, only a week later, March 22 saw the gathering ban crash down to 20 (except for basic needs like grocery shopping), which affected everyone. The day to day lives of people, especially with a 2m social distancing rule, was taught, and learned, but every day we realised more ways in which this could affect us. We couldn’t´t get our hair cut. We couldn’t´t go to the bank without an appointment. There were no bars or pubs left open. The pools had shut. Hotels were deserted. Flights were cancelled, and even the airport became empty.

the abnormally empty streets of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur in downtown Reykjavik

The new cases of Covid-19 spread faster than people were recovering, and at our highest rate of infection just before easter, around 1600 people had been affected. But, the pandemic then began to fall, with Icelander´s having the quietest, loneliest easter weekend imaginable, and a full 6 weeks later, the total number of people infected with Covid stands only at 1806. Today the numbers show only 10 deaths, with a mere 2 active cases left. The statistics and numbers on covid.is website are worth checking out for more facts and stats and to keep up with the rest of Iceland´s recovery news.

quiet and calm times like this means everyone is home looking for a new hobby. Seakayaking was mine, what about yours?

After the first week of April, we were still holding our breath. The numbers were going down but there were still new cases every day. It wasn’t´t until May 4th that we saw the first real light at the end of the tunnel shine, and at midnight that day the gathering ban was increased to 50 people and salons and some spas could reopen. Many people went for a manicure or to meet their chiropractor, and lots of sanitiser and latex was still floating around. At midnight on May 18th, the public pools reopened, and lines of people (with 2m distance between each other) waited outside thru the night to get in for an overdue soak. The pools are restricted to 50% capacity until tomorrow, and then 75% capacity from June 1 until June 15 when they can open at 100% capacity. June 15th will also be the day tourists may begin trickling in, with a promised test-on-arrival system put into place to replace the mandatory 2 week quarantine currently in place for all new arrivals to Iceland.

On May 25, the gathering ban was increased to 200 people and public gyms and bars could finally reopen. The 2m social distancing rule has become a guideline instead, and people are asked to follow it if they want, but restaurants and bars are not expected to accommodate the rule for everyone. With 200 person events now allowed, there seems to be a funeral in every church, and some postponed baptisms, birthday parties and weddings are beginning to fill up the empty venues.

the height of covid lockdown was a perfect time to get out to the quiet countryside. Here is Hofsós in perfect peace and tranquility.

Though Covid is not over, Reykjavik feels a bit like Covid never happened. It´s hard to hear all the struggles others around the world are still in, and watching the number of cases still grow some places. Even in Iceland we had 1 Covid-case confirmed only two days ago, and though it wasn´t announced on the radio every hour like it used to be, we are all still aware. Icelander´s are tough, and being resilient means we are still careful, but its nice to start being able to touch and hug people again. Not everyone is there yet, but things have almost returned to normal in my day to day life. And what impeccable timing – I believe I speak for all locals when I say we are so ready for summer, especially a whole summer in Iceland without tour guiding and no tourist traffic in all our favourite places!

How many countries are there in the world?

From lowest count to highest, here is the range of differing opinions on what makes a country a country, and more importantly, what counts as a ´real´country.

Although the UN is often the default count for people to believe, its not that clear what their official number is. I´ve seen both 193 and 195, since Taiwan and the Vatican have some strange non-member observer status. Then there´s Kosovo, which over a hundred of those member states recognize, but not the UN body. UNESCO, a branch of the UN, has a member list of 195, including Palestine but excluding the Holy See and Taiwan from the UN list, plus 11 associate members.

This pushes the count up to 206, which the National Olympic Committee also has, but they no longer recognise Curacao, Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands, Macau or New Caledonia. Though they used to be part of the International Olympic Committee, they now have to compete through their parent nations (Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, China, France) though the Faroes and Macao are allowed to athletes as their own in the Paralympics.

FIFA says there are 211 registered football teams in the world from different countries (the UK is split into its 4 countries), excluding some UN countries, since not every country in the world has a national men´s football team (ie. Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Vatican).

Couchsurfing has over 230 countries, and claims to have a registered host in every country in the world. With 2 million users, this is definitely possible, but the truth is its hard to find hosts in countries where the site is illegal, like Iran, where there is only one host, like in Wallis & Futuna, or where the site is nonexistent, like in North Korea.

The highest count is over 300. The Centenary Club, an elite members only group of travelers, counts 327 countries and territories.

If you ask me, the definition of a country isn´t rocket science. If you pass a border or showed a passport, had to apply for a visa, or use a totally different currency and maybe a new language, then you´re probably in a different country. I definitely stand by the fact that every time I went to Greenland, I was not in Denmark, and French Guyana is nothing like France except for the euro currency. I actually think its strangest that everyone can agree to call the Holy See a separate country, but others have more problems with territories and their status. I’m somewhere in the middle, with about 245 countries on my horizon, of which 25 I have left to visit.

What lockdown & social distancing has taught me

It´s been fascinating to watch time really slow down, the world pass by in slow motion, and winter turn into summer virtually overnight. In Iceland, the first day of summer was officially last week, and the Arctic Turns are back to prove it. They migrate all the way from Antarctica every year, the longest migratory pattern of any bird, and are here to breed. The grass turned green so quickly I think the naked eye could actually see the new blades growing the first time the sun shone with heat.

I´ve been home more nights these last 6 weeks than I have ever been (in total) in my own apartment. It has taught me how to nest, and that I like nesting, and I´m not such a bad homebody. I´ve been cleaning, decorating and burrowing deeper into my own home than I´ve ever done, anywhere. Last time I remember doing anything like this was for my first year of collage in a 9sq.m dorm room to try and look cool to the others in my dormatory. I sometimes get bored at home alone, so I end up doing things I can´t imagine I actually thought of doing. One day I turned my shower on hot enough to turn the whole bathroom into a steam room (the public pools have all been closed in Iceland for way too long). Another day I scratched mold of my window sills. I set up fairy lights by my desk and added dirt to my cactus flower pots. Its

I finished a book I´ve been carrying in my backpack for more than 2 years, only to learn that the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck is not an uplifting author to read in times of depression. I paint my toes a different colour each week, and consider painting my fingernails to match but never did. I´ve been practicing the piano, and finally learned how to freestyle on a blues scale. I tuned two friends pianos, and realised its actually not that hard or laboursome to tune your own piano. I watched a movie, from a dvd, turning my tv and dvd player on for the first time ever. I watched 4 more dvd´s since, and one of those movie nights turned into a sleep-over pyjama party with 4 other friends from the neighbourhood.

One of the stupider things I learned was not to buy a scratch world map after traveling to more than 200 countries. I actually sustained an injury on my thumb trying to scratch most of the map away and had to spread it out over 5 days, and never finished Russia or Antarctica. I guess its a good thing… to have somethings left to do in unemployment. Let me know if anyone needs a virtual tour guide or travel writer this summer, I´m available! I´m also accepting donations to fund a 300 hr yoga teacher training online course if people just want to pay me to not work 😉

Stay healthy and happy out there, lots of peace and love to you all.

Stranger things have happened

Well, more than a month later, self-quarantine and gathering bans have just become normal life. Everyday, we avoid each other with a mandatory 2m social distancing rule, and even outdoors, its hard to comply. Spring is in the air, and with every mediocre-day, the weather seems better and better to get out of the house and jump around.

My day-to-day life went from self-isolation to group isolation, where I´ve managed to build a covid-safe family of about 7 people I trust to meet. We never hug, don´t get to shake hands, and simply blow each other kisses from 2 m away. But at least we get to meet, see a familiar face, socialise, talk, have human (emotional) contact that isn´t thru a screen. One of the few people I’ve accidentally come closer than 2m to was the prime minister Katrin Jakobs, when I nearly crashed into her on my bike.

lonely, but still outside

I´ve done stranger things this last month. I´ve baked banana cake, 4 times, 4 different ways. I made apple crumble, from scratch, used a waffle maker for the first time, and hand rolled (with a wine bottle) and fried vegan roti bread. Before this month, I don´t think I´ve ever handled flour more than once a year, or decade. I was never a baker. But here I am. I also birdwatched today. I make fun of bird-watchers.

bird-watching from the dedicated birdwatchers shed over Bakkatjorn

I bike, run, hike or yoga everyday, sometimes all of the above, but I´m still not losing an ounze. It seems impossible to ever balance out the indoor, eating time with anything outside, especially when it only stopped snowing or freezing when Easter arrived. The pond in downtown Reykjavik only de-thawed on fully this weekend, since December. For the first time in my living history, Reykjavik sold out of both tulips and easter eggs before Easter Sunday, so two of my favourite things about Easter will have to wait til 2021.

easter dinner

I squatted an empty boutique hotel with 3 covid-family friends near Thingvellir, and one night turned into 3 and even then, we could have stayed. The hotel won´t open again til July, as predictions stand today, so I´m still wondering if I shouldn´t just move into their spa, or Northern Lights bar.

the view over Nesjavellir

I haven´t started my car in weeks because the batter doesnt last so long in the cold, but I´m scared to get it jumpstarted and then drive away and never come back. I feel like a bird that cant only not fly, but I´ve fallen from the branches and I´m buried at the roots, with no chance to travel or work again in the near future. My life, until now, has been a constant pendulum between travel or tour guiding, and neither are an option… for now. But, this summer in Iceland, what better place to be stuck than at home, digging into the roots, and having free time to explore Iceland. And just imagine how it will feel without the millions of tourists? It´s going to feel like one big playground in our backyard.

Things I actually did in quarantine

my view from self-quarantine

Here´s the list I made during quarantine of what was actually happening, day to day. I hope it´s at least amusing, if not relatable, to some of you.

  1. Counting grey hairs. Looking too closely in the mirror and realising I´m going grey. I´ve gone from none to multiple.
  2. Making amazing brunches, with all kinds of liquids, including champagne. It´s a great reason to get out of bed.
  3. Baking banana bread. Lots of it, and a different recipe each time to keep it fun. I tried normal, chocolate gluten free and vegan.
  4. Playing in the kids park on the handle bars, hanging upside down. In running clothes.
  5. Avoiding people on my bike, trying to keep a 2m passing space and almost always running into the curb or onto the grass.
  6. Dreaming about going to the pool, but they´re all closed. Thankfully I have access to a hottub in the backyard of an empty house in Kopavogur.
  7. Sitting on my yoga mat, mindfully thinking about doing yoga. It’s a form of meditation.
  8. Opening 30 bottles of wine, of which 15 were off. Then drinking the good ones. I´m best at that.
  9. I made an advertisement on the Icelandic online classifieds to find horses to ride. (If you or anyone you know is in isolation that has a horse, I can go to the stable for them!)
  10. Looking for dogs to walk and finding out that everyone is walking their own dog these days. Hiking without a dog is almost as much fun. But if you or anyone you know has a dog they cant walk, let me know!

Things to do in self-quarantine

1. Google how to get a 6-pack in 2 weeks. Attempt it every day, without ever getting one.

2. Consider writing a book. Or continue writing one. I’m going to try to finish mine.

3. Go for a run every day. A walk with a few running steps counts too. Especially if you’re dressed like a runner.

4. Finally go thru all your canned food you never use. Make lots of tuna salads and breakfasts with baked beans.

5. Spring clean. Disinfect your porcelain toilet and windex your mirrors, vacuum and mop, and put things in the laundry that you never wash, like your bed sheets.

plenty of time to sit on my yoga mat and think about doing yoga

6. Make impossible goals for yourself like: learn to do the splits, or do a handstand unsupported. Practicing is fun either way.

7. Window shop online for all the things you wish you had with you in isolation. For some, it’s a ukulele. For me, it’s a hottub.

8. Self-groom. A lot. Shave and cut and pluck and paint everything you never have time to do.

9. Imagine redecorating your apartment. Every wall or piece of furniture seems changeable or improvable.

10. Make lists of things to do, like this one, and get a lot of satisfaction checking them off. Ticking boxes feels so productive!

Madeira

I was keeping on with a Portugese, Atlantic-island hopping trip when I decided to go straight to Madeira. The airport connection was seamless, as if I was going to another Azorean island, and being further south, it was warmer and sunnier.

on the top of Madeira

Hiking in Madeira is supposed to be amazing, but the size and steepness of those mountains was a bit daunting. Driving up to the Pico do Arieiro was painless and fast, and getting above the clouds still offered views to the sea.

wine tasting at H.M. Borges

Chef Thrainn met me there, with the intention of learning (and drinking) as much of Madiera wine as we could in 5 days. We drove thru dozens of vineyards on our roadtrip around the island, but only Funchal had actual bottlers and tasting rooms we could seek out.

Funchal tourism has a lot to thank Ronaldo

Our road trip started at Madeira airport, where we drove north to Sao Vicente. We stopped when we felt like, eating lunch at Seixal, and got lucky with a cheap room at Porto Moniz. Our seaside room balcony was above the natural pools, where they’ve concreted in the gaps between the jagged sea cliffs and made sea water pools.

Porto Moniz

We drove west and south, stopping at the not-so-impressive mand-made-beach of Calheta. Funchal was a food and wine highlight, eating at the Michelin recommended Boho Bistro and 1 star Williams restaurant. We learned about Madeira wine making at H.M.Borges, and tasting some excellent examples at Blandy’s wine lodge.

the cable car of Santana going down to Rocha do Novio

Our last day was set aside to drive to the northeast of the island, visiting Faial and the Santana houses. The cable car down to Rocha do Navio was being repaired, so we simply looked down on it, wondering how it is to live there. We drove to the east extreme of Sao Lourenco before calling it a night at Machico. We got the music room at Modern and Recycled guesthouse and had melon proschuitto and seafood on the black sand beach, paired with a perfect rosé, so we felt content to wake up the next morning at 5:30 am to head back home.

The Azores Islands

Planning a trip to the Azores is daunting, especially in off season when islands are less easily accessible, and picking which islands to go to and how to get there takes time.

Lago do Fogo, Sao Miguel island

It wasn’t hard to get to Sao Miguel, with direct daily flights to Ponta Delgada from Boston, and it was quick and inexpensive. It’s a red-eye flight, so arriving at sunrise meant booking a hostel was tricky. I managed to check into Bruma Hostel at 8 am, and got to shower and have breakfast before snuggling into bed for a day nap.

ocean arches at Ferreria, Sao Miguel

I met up with a couchsurfer from Lisbon at a taberna for some 80 cent beer and bifana, then he drove us to Lago do Fogo for a picture perfect view. We watched the sunset at the western point of the island, Ferraria and then taberna hopped our way back to Ponta Delgada. I was always the only woman inside, a smokey and dodgy lit space, so I preferred the outdoors and Nordeste much more. My favourite places in Sao Miguel were Cete Cidades and Furnas Lake, especially bathing in the nearby geothermal springs, Poca da Bona Beija.

Pico island and the peak on a clear day

I then visited the triangle islands – Faial, Pico and Sao Jorge, each for only a couple of days or nights. I flew to Horta, Faial and couchsurfed there with an Italian who had the flu (a sensitive time to be close to anyone sick) but a gorgeous view over Pico island. The first 2 days I barely even saw the island, but the last day I could see the entire mountain, all the way to its peak.

the west end of Faial, Farol of Ponta dos Capelinhos

Faial had some dramatic landscapes on the west end, where Capelinhos volcano erupted from 1957 to 58. Horta was the most charming town, with art and cafe culture thriving among the charming facades, and houses being rebuilt and refurbished all around.

Madalena church, Pico island

When I went to Pico, I only hiked up until the Casa de Montanha visitor center, since everything higher up than that was fogged out. I tried some local wine from the wine co-op in Madalena.

one of Sao Jorge’s many faja towns

Sao Jorge was my personal favourite, at least for the outdoors. The hiking, dramatic sea-cliffs and fajas made you want to stay outside all day. I rented a scooter, since a car would keep me too much inside, and drove some of the crazy roads from the coast to the cliffs and across the island. The deserted lighthouse Ponta dos Rosais on the north tip was creepy, but the whale lookout and Sete Fontes forest nearby were worth visiting. Sao Jorge is the king of place you can hitchhike a taxi, and a man still plows his field with rope, steel and oxen.

the milk man delivery truck

Terceira was a brief 1 day and 2 night stop. I slept at Hostel de Palmeira, quite likely the best hostel I’ve ever seen, in Praia da Vitoria, and had an entire 8-bed dorm and sea-view balcony to myself. In the morning I ran on the black sand beach, and it was always warm enough, even in the rain.

Angra do Heroismo central square, facing the beach

I rented a car from the Lajes airport on Terceira to get to Angra do Heroismo, considered by some to be the first city of the Atlantic. Its an historical place, beautifully located and has a beach in the city center. It had great restaurants, Tasca das Tias especially for steak, and I tried sea barnacles for the first time at O Pirata.

Great seafood and oceanfront seating at Bar Caloura, Sao Miguel

There were a lot of other mentionable things I did there in 10 days, and a lot more things I didn’t get the chance to do. Ideally, plan to go there for 2 or 3 months and simply go to every island, for a week each, and then you wont have to worry about planning in advance. I definitely plan on returning, specifically to see Corvo and Flores, and hope to see a whale next time.