Life in Transit

Being a visitor to your actual tourist destination is always satisfying, but the actual act of traveling from point A to point B is kind of a solitude activity. If you are going far or have layovers, it becomes this lonely, slow motion journey where you are stuck a lot in ticket check in, security checkpoints, airport shopping, bus terminals, or taxi stands. Jet lag is super annoying, especially when you can’t sleep in airports or airplanes, but luckily I can pass out pretty much anywhere, it just usually results in a stiff neck or my legs falling asleep and painfully tingling back to sensation, very slowly. Time differences make jet lag and sleeping soundly even harder, like when you travel and lose half a day or a whole night simply because you went east. But then it’s great when you fly west and time just seems to stand still. Crossing the international date line in either direction is also fun, you either lose a whole day or start the day all over again. It’s hard enough to remember what date it is, or day of the week, but sometimes I’m totally lost even what month it is since seasons are also totally different all over the world. I’ve even been known to forget what year it is… but that might be due to other reasons like slight stupidity.

Currencies and exchange rates complicate travel transition as well, but with rising popularity of credit cards, atm’s available almost anywhere, half of Europe using the euro and more and more countries using the US dollar, things seem to be getting simpler. Language is probably the hardest thing to adjust to – landing in a foreign place with weird monopoly money and different weather, plus everything is happening in a tongue you don’t understand. Luckily for me globalization is pushing English as the lingua franca, but it’s a shame when English speakers get away never learning a word of the local language since we often ignorantly expect everyone else to learn English to cater to us.

I am now in Toronto, halfway from where I was to where I’m going. With a 12 hr layover, I was considering to just bum it out in the airport since I actually enjoy airports and people watching the thousands of people shuffle between destinations. I arrived at Pearson at 7pm and it was 33 degrees Celsius outside, much warmer than the -5` I had last in Toronto, so I got outside for some not-so-fresh air, but the smoggy humid still felt great – you never get that sticky pollution in Iceland. Then I got dragged into a free shuttle service by Comfort Hotels to their hotel where they had a pool open til 11pm and free wireless, and next thing you know im sleeping in a king size bed with a view of Woodbine racetrack after a very dramatic, blood-red sunset. I guess its nice to treat yourself once in a while to a cozy hotel room to get out of the airport and break up the lonely act of traveling.

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Country Life at Kalfholl

For the month of August while working with the Ishestar horse trips, I was basically living on a farm 20km out of selfoss called Kalfholt. That is the farm where the horses used for the langmanalaugar and Golden Circle are from, and also most of the staff minus the Ishestar tour guide. It’s a family of 3 boys and their mom and dad that are behind the operation, and just getting a glimpse into the country life of having only brothers and everything in Icelandic was different to my every day life in Reykjavik. The eldest brother Thordur Freyr is the real genius behind the horse trips, and also the reason I got into this work since we were together in a class at university when I met him and found out he had horses. A year and a half of pestering him to let me ride his horses, actually riding with him once and then running into eachother late one night at a bar were the 3 incidents that probably secured my chances.

Þórður Freyr, the horse god

A friend jokingly called him the god of horses which he basically is, having incredible horse sense and knowing the names and temperament of every one of 60 horses taken on each 6 day trip. He can catch and ride anything, but once made the mistake of putting me on a horse I couldn’t really ride so I unfortunately can’t say the same for me… but I did once catch a horse he couldn’t, that I have to share.

Riding at Kálfhóll

He took me on what he called a ‘special mission’ for two days; we left the group of 15 from Landmanalaugar and came back to Kalfholt to lead a private 2 day tour for only 2 guests, a Swedish chef and his 20 yr old daughter. It was a blast to only be 4 riding together, with no extra loose horses, but endless entertainment to watch Gert, the chef, fear for his life the entire time he was on horseback. I have to admit he relaxed more by the end, but still was only doing this because of his daughters love for horses. She had all her Icelandic horse dreams come true, with the most excellent riding weather imaginable, rode one of the largest and most prized mares of the farm, crossed a huge river, and galloped a couple stretches while her father waited up ahead staring seriously at the horses ears in front of him. Although we weren’t herding extra riding horses, we got to ride in fields with lose horses all around, and when we rode through the paddock of yearlings, me and my horse became completely surrounded by curious faces and flaring nostrils of some very excited foals.

We returned to the other group for their last day of riding; it was a really hot, dry day and I had an excellent last day on horseback riding one of the tour guides competition horses behind the herd in a cloud of dramatic dust kicked up by the very eager loose horses who knew they were on their way home.

Menningarnótt, Culture Day in Iceland

With only a few days in August spent not on horse back, every time I went back to Reykjavik I had this weird culture shock of not being in the middle of nowhere. What’s good for culture shock is probably culture overload, and I got just that. Menningarnott is literally translated as Culture Night in Reykjavik, but its actually an all day festival where the entire downtown area of Reykjavik is a big street fair with concerts and markets lining various neighborhoods. All ages walk around, kids, party people, adults and seniors, and you can see balloons and streamers and hear live music from almost anywhere. People have garage sales on their doorsteps and restaurants make temporary street food stands to sell delicious hot dogs and hamburgers in all the major squares.

Lost shoes

There is so much going on in a day that the schedule is just crammed with event listings in hundreds of different locations and venues that its impossible to even pick what you want to do or see everything you want to see. I decided just to spend the day wandering around following my senses. I started by walking with the direction of the wind since it was a bit chilly, and ended up at the National Art Museum by the pond to see some classical music. Then I followed my cousin to a street fair where all the neighbours were trying to sell old treasures.

I ran into a famous actor from Iceland there and couldn’t help but stare since he looked like he was stuck in this surreal movie scene of an antique craft market in the middle of modern day Iceland. Next I followed a black and white cat through an alleyway, and he would never let me get close enough to pet him so after rubbing his furry self on all the doorways and doorsteps, led me towards the Norwegian embassy where Retro Stefansson were giving a live show. I bobbed my head to some great music there, ran into a friend who has the most beautiful, long red hair that you could never miss seeing him in a crowd, and then continued on past a fire-roasting naan bread food stand. Random, no?

I then passed a pair of leather shoes on the sidewalk, politely placed beside each other as if someone were to step in them any minute. Everyone kept walking past them taking no notice so I decided to do the same. Then I walked past the same scene, this time also with a pair of pants, and I looked around for the pantless, barefoot owner and saw no one. Again no one seemed to care so I didn’t think of notifying any sort of lost and found. Shortly after I saw the same thing again, a pair of mens dress shoes and pants on the sidewalk, and two blocks later passed just a pair of pants crumbled on the floor. They must belong to the first pair of shoes… but who knows.

I stumbled past many other entertaining scenes and colourfully dressed people. The young women have such incredible, individualistic style, and I love when they paint their lips in the brightest shades of pink and red with their porcelain pale skin as contrast. Everyone has style and looks super cool as if advertising some personal culture on Menningarnott. The actual night time gets even more crazy and ‘cultural’ with public drinking bringing out everyones true selves.

Aerial view of menningarnott

Headliner bands play in the main square and another stage beside the famous hotdog stand also gets a full crowd. After nudging shoulders every step of the way to get anywhere, me and my 6 friends visiting from Canada went between stages and ate a couple hot dogs, and then took in the firework show that my British friend Evelyn swore were the best fireworks she had ever seen in her life. The party continued on the streets as one third of Iceland could never fit into all the bars and nightclubs even with every single one filled to capacity. Its basically like new years night but with better weather, but still imagining how busy it was didn’t compare to how crazy it actually was. We made it into 2 different venues after waiting in moderate line ups, but when we left to go home at 4 am, we realized why – the true Icelanders were just getting started then, and all the line ups were full of people prepared to be out til broad daylight.

Landmanalaugar & Landmanahellir

riding into landmanahellir

riding into landmanahellir

Three of the horse trips I took were to the Landmanalaugar area in Iceland’s southern highland. This area is basically uninhabited, and impassable 8 months of the year with bad weather, freezing cold and snow cover. The other 3 or 4 months when you can pass, there aren’t any paved roads, only 4×4 tracks, hiking trails and horse paths. You ride over these huge, black mountains and gravel valleys to reach a small oasis of lush green near Landmanahellir and natural hot water baths 20km further at Landmanalaugar where we bathe to both clean and relax our tired bodies. We cross bridges and streams, moss-covered lava and some epic, moon-like landscapes in just the course of one day. This trip requires more experienced riders, and 2-3 horse per person, so for the group of 18 plus 5 staff we had almost 70 horses on one trip. That means that everytime all of us are mounted on our 23 horses, another 50 are run loose, magically staying in a herd following one leader on horse back. That is truly an amazing sight.

riding over old lava

We stop numerous times in one day, since we ride sometimes 40km over 6 hrs and need to switch horses once or twice, or just rest all the horses if its too warm. We stop for lunch and take off the horses saddles to let them graze a bit, or drink, and if its nice weather I just lay in the grass holding the reins in one hand while I doze in and out of consciousness. It is the time of year when lupin seeds spring all over the place, and you can actually hear them popping, as well as feel them land on your face if you are laying down within a couple meters of a lupin plant. Once a horse was grazing too close to my head and with his big, slobbery lips took a mouthful of my hair and ripped it out like they were feeble blades of grass. That hurt, to say the least, but I learned my lesson and instead laid on my horse bareback to nap more.

changing horses

There seems to be a trend with movie-related industry people being the Ishestar guides, and this quite successful actor Svandis was with us for two trips. She was funnest later at night, after a few drinks, when she started talking about the elf Dutti who lived in the cave near our cabin at Landmanahellir. Maybe it was the brennivin speaking, but I think she may have convinced some of us Dutti was real.

We have one party for the quests where we give them brennivin and dried fish, and quickly you get to learn more about someone and what kind of person they are. It’s an interesting way to see peoples personalities come out, as you’ve already spent a few days speculating what kind of rider they are and what kind of horse they need to ride, and then some true colours shine thru and I think the  next day they’ll be paired much better. If that isn’t enough, then sleeping all 23 people in rows of bunkbeds in one giant room definitely gets us all close, with only 1 or 2 bathrooms for privacy, no hot water, and no electricity. If theres ever a time you want to see someones comfort limits, this type of situation is perfect for grinding out the princesses in the group. But, in the end, I think we all end up making better friends and letting down our guards alot easier, and the best part is always having a cuddle buddy.

nap time, with a furry friend

Gullfoss & Geysir

The first horse trip I took was a 6 day Golden Circle tour. Its almost 200km roundtrip, and starts and ends at the farm where the horses are from and passes both Gullfoss and Geysir, probably the two biggest attractions in Iceland after the Blue Lagoon. I certainly wasn’t in shape for 5 hrs of riding a day, so the first few days kicked my ass, but luckily this trip was actually considered a beginner level ride and the group took it pretty slow. There was even a 10 year old swiss girl who made the whole journey, showing us all how unfit we probably were and even ran to the rescue when her mother fell off her horse.

riding towards geysir

I’ve been to the Golden Circle countless times at it is the main tourist day trip I take my friends on when visiting, and later in August took 7 friends there in 2 cars. There was something much more satisfying about riding up to Gullfoss though, since we rode along the gorge where the water flows and got such a better feel for the area where the waterfall is and enjoying the landscape around it, instead of just driving up 20 m from the falls and taking 10 photos, then leaving 10 mins later. Riding up to Geysir was also fun, since the 10km journey took an hour instead of minutes, and we got to watch Strokkur explode in the distance every few minutes as we neared the Geysir guesthouse where we were staying.

lunch time break

We spent two nights there, at a cosy hotel on a golf course just across the road from all the geothermal pools in Geysir, and I didn’t realize what a luxury it was that I had my own room until the next few horse trips where 25 people share one big room. The tour guide on this trip was Denni, a tour guide by summer but movie producer and director most of the other time. He was this really friendly, quirky guy with a great sense of humor, and once published a book on elves in Iceland but secretly admitted he made it to tease the fact that elves are actually believed in. My conclusion was that he was just a part-elf who tried to convince us of this since he couldn’t admit to being a visible elf… or he was just a really magical guy.

Denni & Thordur looking guilty

One night we decided to break into the pool next door since the punk teenager earlier that day made all of us pay 500kr per person to bathe when he thought Ishestar would cover the expense. The boy was still inside the pool house an hour after it closed, with some buddies just doing who knows what. We took the darkness as our cloak and stealthily snuck behind a big tree and climbed the fence into the pool yard. There we changed into our suits and ran to the tub where we sat with water up to our ears to avoid being seen by the camera we realized was on us. We actually didn’t get caught, and climbed back over a different section of fence to safety – must have been the elf in Denni that kept us invisible to the pool boy.

Thjodhatid, aka Þjóðhátíð

I said coming back home to Iceland after 2 months in Africa was coming back to reality, but Thjodhatid is anything but real life. Its one of the biggest parties in Iceland every year, with some 15 or 20 thousand people arriving to Haimey, one of the Vestmann Islands whose resident population is only 4,000. For three nights and three days there is a stage and a bunch of white tents in the Valley between this massive mountain ridge, and planes, helicopters, boats and ferries work around the clock to bring everyone there. People sleep in tents either in the valley or on the lawn of a friend or relative, and all of a sudden there are more tents than houses scattered around town.

disco party on the boys hands

disco party on the boys hands

One of the main sponsors, or maybe just advertising campaigns, was by the phone company Nova, and they set up a shop that was basically a dj stand blasting funky music, giving away lanyards and waterbottles of all colours, and selling disco ball gloves. This resulted in everyone in the valley matching with nova décor. Many were also wearing 66 degree north waterproof gear, usually in the form of big fishing overalls in neon orange or yellow. Most people wore cool sunglasses, many had matching clothes and dressed in teams with just their last name differing one sweater from another. Everything was sparkly and bright, and even though some complain the music is horrible, everyone was dancing and having a great time on the muddy ‘brekka’, the natural grassy slope creating the audience holding area.

the brekka, full of people

the brekka, full of people

Every night something special happens, and the first night a huge bonfire was lit, giving heat more than 200m away. Near the end of the night when the fire was basically a massive pile of coals, me and my friend Bjorgvin hiked to the top of it before being told no one was allowed there and almost died on the steep, slippery decent away from our slowly melting butts. On the second night was an amazing fireworks display, and me and Bjorgvin again decided to hike to the top of the rise and only accidentally planned it so perfectly that the moment we peaked, turned around and sat down to rest, the firework show started and we had the most spectacular view of the sky being lit up and the valley below it, full of screaming people and a building, eerie fog.

on top of the mountain looking down on the valley, the tiny stage and firework smog

on top of the mountain looking down on the valley, the tiny stage and firework smog

I actually missed the last night, also the biggest and best night apparently, which involved some cool light show on the brekka, but I also missed the only  rain fall and instead took the last ferry back to the main land, where Thordur, the horse god, met me to take me away on horse back for the next 4 weeks. Not a bad way to have to leave, I guess, but still too bad I missed Sunday night so I guess Ill just have to go back to Thjodhatid next year.

Back to Reality

Our last day in Namibia was spent at Chameleon Backpackers in Windhoek, which is actually a really cozy, reasonably priced, upscale hostel, but is suprisingly paranoid about safety. They post these outrageous signs like “The Windhoek experience: take your bags into town and get robbed in broad daylight” and “Carry your valueables with you and you will get mugged.” They make you hire their privately chosen taxis for any inner-city transport, and frown on you if you even dare think about waving one off the streets. Its strange that instilling fear in tourists is somehow seen as a good way to promote tourism…

We ate at Joe’s Beerhouse, popular with many, and I tried Ostrich, Zebra and crocodile meat for the first time. It was Steve’s birthday and everyones last night together so it was a bittersweet evening, but knowing that I was on my way home was also a comforting feeling.

Going home I flew through Johannesburg and spent a night there with Dana’s family, but we basically just ate, showered and slept before I went straight back to the airport on the new Goa train – which is actually not pronounced anything like its spelled and I had a hard time getting my taxi driver to the right station at 4 am when I surely had no idea where I was. Once I checked in and got to my gate, I watched my last African sunrise come over the tarmac with jumbo planes taking off and landing that seemed more majestic than usual. 

what I'll miss most - african dusk and dawn

I was actually really looking forward to my trip home since the British Airways flight I took was direct from Johannesburg to London in 10 hrs and the plane was virtually empty so I got 3 seats together to just lie down and sleep the whole way. I couldn’t really sleep so I watched 4 movies and ate all the food and drink I could to make the flight more enjoyable. I barely had enough time to get off that flight, get my baggage, move from terminal 5 to 1, and then check in for my next flight in 4 hrs, and then had 2.5 hrs on a super full flight with absolutely no food or drink. It took the whole day to get back to Reykjavik and my cousin picked me up just before midnight and it was nice to see it was still twilight. I missed the long days, what a relief to not expect sunset at 5:30pm anymore. Although its hard to swap the brightness for the warmth, since 13 degrees isnt exactly my idea of warm sun.

The water is probably the most welcoming thing I’ve experienced so far in Iceland, since there is no shortage of it and I’m no longer camping in the bush having to fetch enough water for 5 people for 4 days. The cold water comes out of the tap cold, tastes great, and even the sulfury smell of the hot water beats the smell of kalky water in Namibia.

It was wierd to deal with traffic and other cars and so many people in Reykjavik, but I had a hot dog from Baejarins Bestu and packed my things to go the next day to Vestmannaeyjar, home of my dads family and also the biggest party in Iceland every year – Thjodhatid.

Links: Chameleon: http://www.chameleonbackpackers.com
Joe’s Beer House Restaurant: http://www.joesbeerhouse.com