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!

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!

Montserrat: The Pompeii of the Caribbean

Like Saba, Montserrat is also very green, and used to be known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. But since the 1995 eruption of Soufriere Hills volcano, the airport and port town of Plymouth were buried in ash and turned into a modern Pompeii. The capital city was abandoned, much of the island was evacuated, but 19 lost their lives, and hundreds upon hundreds of buildings were either buried under ash or washed away with one of many pyroclastic flows, which kept occurring until as recently as 2009.

the panoramic view of Soufriere Hills from the Volcano Observatory

So why would a tourist want to go there? Well for one, I´m Icelandic and we have volcanic eruptions all the time, so that wasn´t a deterrent. Secondly, driving around Plymouth (which requires an escort and police clearance) was tons more moving than Pompeii – these were people´s homes that are still alive today!

black sand tropical beach

I was supposed to take a ferry to Montserrat from Antigua, but the one day I had booked they decided to dock the ferry for maintenance. I was lucky enough to have pre-booked, so they offered to fly me instead, in a charter, and I was only one of 4 passengers going out to John A. Osborne airport, newly built in 2005 to replace the devastated Plymouth airport. I was even luckier flying back – as the only passenger in an 8 seater plane, I got to play copilot instead!

I helped fly myself back to Antigua

I walked down to Brades and Little Bay, saw black sand beaches that reminded me of home, then hitchhiked south to the Montserrat Volcano observatory. There I met a couple of nice Americans that invited me to Plymouth – all I had to do was add my name to the police registry when passing the no-travel zone!

A building still visible in Plymouth

We saw an abandoned hotel, what was left of the grocery store, and the new harbour they´ve built to export sand. The economy still relies heavily on British aid, but the future is bright: green energy from Icelandic technology should tap into the island´s geothermal power by 2024, and tourism has started increasing again. The mountainous hiking and black beaches around the island are still an attraction, although Soufriere is still an active volcano. Some daredevils have even rebuilt their homes in the no-go zone, because who knows, maybe it will be dormant for another 2 or 3 hundred years, as it was before 1995.

Winter season in Iceland

I’ve been working with Backroads for a couple of summers now, and this was my second winter. It’s been a good winter – snow storms, minus 10 degrees and plenty of northern lights. The day light is short, with sunrise after 11 and sunset before 4, so there’s a small window of opportunity to be active outside. We’re meant to hike, snowshoe, glacier walk or horseback ride, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. But when it does, its a winter wonderland out here.

Ion Adventure Hotel, the first night of our Northern Lights trip

I had a week of trip preparation, where me and the trip expert practiced all the hikes and visited all of our vendors. Hotels, restaurants and farms took us in with open arms and we had luck with weather almost every day. Once the first trip started, we lucked out with northern lights 5 out of 5 nights, and the trip couldn’t have gone better.

our hike at Skalakot Boutique farm comes with free dog company

The second trip ran over the worst storm Iceland has seen in years, with power being cut off across the north of Iceland, and up to 4 meters of snow burying horses alive. We were on a small spit of the south coast where the only open road in the whole country was a 10km stretch of highway 1 exactly around us. It was incredible to be able to stick to the plan, hiking and glacier walking despite the rest of the country being on lock down, and our only inconvenience was staying an extra night at Hotel Ranga since we couldn’t get to Umi Hotel.

a nearly completely frozen Oxarafoss, a special site even for Icelander’s

The third trip was over New Years, and we rang in the New Year together at Hotel Ranga with our group and the staff that have become more and more like family after so many nights at the hotel. There were two guests with birthdays on January 1st, so there was plenty to celebrate, and we saw Northern Lights in the morning before sunrise on our way onto Solheimajokull.

Thorsmork covered in White and a sunrise turned sunset to make it even more beautiful

The next trip won’t be until March and April, when the daylight hours are triple what they have been so far. It’s better for flexibility and certainly makes driving thru snowstorms easier, but there’s a certain charm in visiting Iceland in its darkest hours, and the feedback from guests has always been rewarding – what a magical country we live in to be able to enjoy it in the midst of horrible winter storms and still come home smiling.

Icelandic Winter Traditions

New Years eve, and the few days leading up to it, are very explosive, literally. Icelanders buy hundreds and hundreds of tons of fireworks and explode them downtown, in backyards, harbours, farms, you name it. Reykjavik is the only city in the world where I can actually hear midnight coming, as the fireworks get more and more intense around Hallgrimskirkja, the loudest climax is the moment when the New Year has arrived.

The Christmas Market in Hafnafjordur

With 26 days of Christmas, there are a lot of traditions that Icelandic people keep up to fill the dark winter season. There’s even a small Christmas Market ´Jólaþorpið´started in Hafnafjordur, and free ice skating in Ingolfstorg downtown for all the days in December. Then of course there are the famous, or infamous, Yule lads, the 13 Christmas elves who each have a special, mischievous role to play. There´s the hungry ones: Sausage Stealer, Skyr Gobbler, Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Meat Hook, who loves smoked lamb, and Stubby, who likes eating pan crusts.

There´s the creepy ones, Sheep harassing Sheep-Cote-Clod, Door Sniffer and the Window Peeper. Then there’s the annoying ones: the noisy Door Slammer, Gully Gawk who likes to jump out and scare people, and Candle Sneaker, who’s also hungry because they’re used to stealing candles made of animal fat and eating them.

ice skating in Ingolfstorg

These fine examples of Icelandic folklore are the sons of a large, ugly, child-eating troll named Gryla, and her black cat eats Children who don’t receive any new clothes for Christmas. The Yule lads are not all bad – they bring down a present to put in your shoe, one by one, for the 13 days leading up to Christmas, unless you misbehave – then you get a potato or a piece of coal. Then 13 days after Christmas, the Yule lads return back to Gryla in her mountain, and the last day of Christmas is Jan 6, but its only a few weeks to wait until Thorrablot, Icelands other, rather unappealing, winter tradition.

Thorrablot used to be a pagan festival, dedicated to pagan gods in the fourth month of winter, previously known as Thorri. It’s basically a midwinter party (end-Jan to mid Feb in the modern day calendar) dedicated to eating sour and fermented foods, the same ram testicles, sheep head, rotten shark, liver and blood sausages as the vikings ate before the modernisation or Christianisation of Iceland. Its also a drunken time, when farmers and fishermen and city folk alike gather in huge groups (a dinner for hundreds of people sometimes), organising with the next county or community to make sure they don’t hold the festival on the same night, so that everyone can go to more Thorrablots and drink enough beer and brennivin to wash all the sour food down and hangover away. Sounds like a blast, right?

midday in midwinter

My favourite Þorrablóts are happening around Feb 1st in the north of Iceland, be sure to check out Varmahlíð or Hunaver´s schedule, or just search Thorrablot in Facebook events to be sure to find the one closest to you. Or, if sour food isn´t for you, there´s always hottubs and the outdoor bathing culture we all love and need to get us through a long Icelandic winter.

For the Love of Golf

I make fun of golfers all the time. I say, “golf is for old, fat men” or, “golf is only for business meetings.” I thought golf was boring, pointless and drawn out. But, I was only a hater, not a golfer, so I decided to go with the mantra, you can’t knock it til you try it, and I tried it. And, I liked it. I hate to admit it, but it was fun.

driving at Oddur

I started by going to Oddur driving range in Gardabaer a couple of times, which is basically free if you have your own golf clubs, and you can buy a hundred balls for a few hundred kronurs. I inherited two of my father’s driving clubs, and decided it was time to learn how to hit a golf ball a few hundred yards. I had a few pointers, from two others who knew what they were doing, and it was so satisfying when I finally connected the club to the ball at the right angle and drove that ball far, far away.

hitting in the right place seems impossible from this far away

I didn’t quite feel the part without a one handed golf glove, so got that, and I needed a collared shirt too of course. A visor wouldn’t hurt, so I got one of those either, and in no time, I looked like a golfer. Ew. It was just too easy.

Now I was ready for my first real golf game. I did 9 holes at Icelandair Hotel Hamar, on kind of a cold, wet, day. Being exposed to wind and rain made it a lot harder to hit the ball straight, and just hit the ball in general, but everytime I did get it closer to the flag and into the hole, I was pumped for the next tee.

golf glove, yea!

I was on the way to Hotel Husafell the next morning to try out their golf course, but on the way, stumbled upon the farm Nes near Reykholt. They’ve turned their haying fields into a 9-hole golf course called Reykholtsdalsvollur. The grass was green, the sun was shining, and the farmer was about to mow the putting greens. He was a comical, old man who made jokes, told stories, and secretly laughed at our lack of golf skills.

Glanni golf course

My next real game of golf, a couple of weeks later, was at Bifrost’s Glanni golf course. There isnt anyone there to check in with, so you simply put some money in a mailbox and play as you please. There was’t anyone else on the course, so we played 9 holes in just under 3 hours, and I hit over par on all 9. I think I got a +1 once, lots at least 4 balls, but found 3, so I ended up feeling alright with the game. Overall, I feel alright with golf, and I’m going to stop making fun of the sport, although its still hard for me to call it a sport. It feels more like a stroll thru the park with a walking stick that works better hitting balls than

 

The Wilderness Expedition, by Hestasport

Every year I make time for Hestasport to do at least one riding tour in the summer. The highland trip we like to do together is called the Wilderness Expedition, for good reason – it takes place in one of the most remote highland areas of Iceland, crossing north over Hofsjokull glacier, bridging the gap between Kjolur and Sprengisandur mountain passes. Our ride started and ended in the horse capital of Iceland, beautiful Skagafjordur.

leaving Skagafjordur, under Maelifell mountain*

The impression of an Icelandic wilderness is like nowhere else on earth. There aren´t any big wildlife (unless you´re in the east of Iceland with the reindeer), and the chances you´ll see an arctic fox are slim to none, so its just you and the wilderness. There aren´t trees, so on a clear day you´ll see to the horizon and 360° around you across an immense expanse of mountains, deserts, highland plateaus and glaciers.

the desert highlands north of Hofsjokull*

It takes so long for the snow to completely fade in the highlands that the mountain passes don´t even open until late June or early July, and it already starts snowing again in August, so the tiny gap of a few weeks you can ride it is brief. We took our trip at the end of August, with incredible weather, and some of the hottest days I´ve ever experienced in the highlands. We only got a few drops of rain, not even enough to get into our heavy duty rain gear, and the horses held their shoes and no horse or rider got injured. By the first week of September, the tops of the glaciers had already been freshly snowdusted again and the northern lights started coming out, so we made it home in the nick of time.

the loo with a view; Ingolfsskali cabin and our A-frame toilet under the glacier*

From our week long ride with perfect visibility, we saw all three of Iceland´s biggest glaciers, ran into a few goose hunters, and sold some of our herd to Germany. We crossed multiple glacier rivers, thankfully all low enough to get over without swimming, although the current on Jokulsa eystri (the east glacier river in Skagafjordur) pulled a few of our herd far enough downstream to force them to doggy paddle over.

running into herds of wild horses*

After our wonderful trip, the Icelandic and German guides, Australian, Dutch and Swiss guests all parted ways. Only a couple of weeks later, I visited some of our tour horses at Bockholts-hoff Icelandic breeding farm south of Hamburg, hosted by the owner and breeder Silke Kohler. We tolted through a German forest and I couldn´t stop smiling at the cornfields and big trees – they were more exotic to me than anything we saw on the wilderness expedition!

*(C) All photos by Dorien Kaandorp

This Backroads Life

At Backroads, I´m called a leader. I much prefer chasing sheep on horseback, but that job doesn’t pay as well, and I’m deathly allergic to hay, so I’ll stick to Backroads leading.

Skaftafell National Park for a Backroads day

You can also call us glorified tour guides, where we’re capable of acting as babysitters or bus drivers just as well as we get to shine in the spotlight, but Backroad’s leaders are really one of a kind – a rare and spectacular breed of individuals that are capable of so much. There’s benefits to being an Icelandic leader in Iceland, but actually it means I get to spend extra time defending Backroads in Iceland, and doing extra work for the company since Im the local language expert and live here anyway, so I’m not really that special, on the Backroads global scale kinda measurement.

on Fjallsjokull glacier

The trips I lead are called multi-sport: we do sports, different kinds, one for every day. Its a 6 day trip, and we hike, bike, glacier walk, and sometimes, horse back ride. We go from Hofn to Reykjavik, in our Backroads vans, and are always atleast 2 leaders working together. We sleep at Iceland’s best hotels; Hotel Ranga and Ion Adventure hotel, to name a  few, and eat like kings and queens. It’s hard to stay fit, even as an active tour leader, since the food weighs me down, day after day, in addition to all the snacks we’re meant to offer guests, but really just end up eating ourselves, out of boredom, or guilt, or satisfaction, or all of the above… I don’t know.

biking around Thingvallavatn

The Iceland season is short, beginning at the start of June and ending at the start of September. I start and end the season, with a few weeks off in between, and our groups are anywhere from 9 to 26 people, almost always only Americans. They tip, so I love them, and speak English, which makes my job easy, but the few weeks I get off from Backroads to lead horseback riding treks are also a blessing. I may be surrounded by middle-aged German women, who were expecting a Chris Hemsworth kind of Thor as their guide, and barely speak english, but the horses are always worth it.

horseback riding in Hella

A couple of nights in the highlands, in mountain huts without running water or electricity, sharing bunk beds in one big room, and I’m immediately ready to go back to Backroads leading. My Fosshotel glacier room feels more like home than my own bed in Reykjavik does, and I’m not sure I remember what life was like before Backroads… *sigh*

my well-worn hiking boots at Hoffell

This Backroads life was meant to be, the dream job I never had and the perfect lifestyle to enjoy Iceland and traveling. If only my midriff agreed.