Mindfulness in Iceland

I was recently in Nepal and participated in a number of yoga and meditation classes, and realized they’re not very different. Meditation is actually something we do all the time, though it may be mindless, and sometimes misused to be a tool for negative rumination.

I’ve always noticed that Icelandic nature, and the things I do in Iceland, seem a perfect setting for productive meditation. I’m usually most relaxed when I’m horse back riding, looking out on some epic scenery in the highlands, sitting in a natural hot tub in the middle of nowhere, or watching the midnight sun touch the ocean before going back up into the horizon. If the weather was better, I’m sure there would be more yoga retreats here.

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meditating with my horse in some summery sunny Icelandic weather

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an ambassador of peace and well-known spiritual leader from India, was in Iceland last week to give on a talk on the importance of meditation. He explains it as a way for people to find inner calm and happiness, which spreads naturally through a population and serves an important role in creating peace.

Exploring Iceland and SATI Mindfulness worked together to put on a Mindfulness Retreat in Hveragerdi last weekend, and I was lucky enough to take part with another 20 or so participants, a mixture of Americans, Icelanders, and one German. Our teachers were Craig and Devon, along with a landscape architect with a Phd. in Environmental design. Calling it a Mindfulness Retreat was an interesting marketing move, since telling my family I was going to a 3 day meditation workshop would have made them a little worried about my mental health – why is it that practicing meditation is such an alternative/hippy thing?

Along with some hiking, stretching and exercising, we learned that meditation is a transition from movement to stillness, and noise to silence. It gives you time to contextualize life, commit to happiness, and consider compassion. When meditating, Sri Sri’s three mantras are: I want nothing. I am nothing. I am doing nothing.

Have you ever wondered how hard it is to do nothing? Its nearly impossible. Your mind never shuts up, and if it does it only lasts a few moments before something else you need to remember or plan to do pops up. Devon and Craig also like to call ‘mindufulness’ ‘bodyfulness,’ since its in those moments when your brain quiets that you can really feel and listen to your body. Even if its pain or tiredness, just listening to your physical sensations is an extremely powerful ability that many of us ignore.

Sometimes I caught myself imagining what it would be like to have a super low IQ, or super intense ADHD, maybe then it would be easier to focus only on the here and now. Focusing on just yourself in the moment is a really difficult way to narrow your thoughts, and I’m not sure I ever managed to truly get there in our 3 days together.

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Reykjadalur, the smokey valley and hot river most people come to Hveragerdi for

Hveragerdi was a wonderful place to have the workshop. We were surrounded by summer, green vegetation, a steaming mountain side, and a hot river to bathe in. There were also hundreds of girl and boy scouts having some kind of retreat at the same time, offering endless fields of coloured tents and people walking around with rolled neck bands. We didn’t have to compete with them for a supply of nature and relaxation, but one day when we all ended up in a forest with instructions to try and hug a tree, literally, I was hoping some of them would walk by and see a bunch of grown, sober adults tree hugging and wondered what their reaction would be.

We did some other strange exercises, like trying to walk as slow as you can without stopping (you can go really slow!), or making one hand a fist be the sun and smashing it into the other open palm which represented the moon, but everything was more fun when we did it together. What I came away with from this retreat was to remember more often to bring out the inner child and just play – with myself, with nature with thoughts, and with feelings. It definitely makes you feel lighter.

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The Cheltenham Festival in the UK

If you are visiting the United Kingdom next March we recommend that you enjoy some British heritage by going to the Cheltenham Festival. The Festival is not a music festival but rather the second biggest horse racing event in the UK. The event takes place over four days and is a great way to experience an important part of rural British culture.

cheltenham-day-1According to the Cheltenham Festival website, racing at Cheltenham dates back over 200 years. Very quickly the race became one of the most popular sporting events in Victorian Britain. The races at Cheltenham have survived many events including two world wars and is now considered the biggest racing meet in the country after the Grand National. Crowds of over 200,000 will descend on the racecourse during the course of the four days. The best way to understand why this event holds such as special place in the UK sporting world is to visit the festival.

treadmill-1201014_960_720The Cheltenham Festival is a great chance to experience British culture and even see the Royal Family who come to the races with their own horses every year. If you feel like dressing up for the races then Ladies Day on the second day of festival is when people come in their best. Women will wear elaborate hats with elegant dresses while the men will wear their finest suits. If you need some inspiration for what to expect then The Guardian did a photo article on last year’s event.

Tickets range greatly in price depending on where you want to watch the races. They will cost between £25-£200 for the big days but no matter where you decide to view the race you won’t be able to help but get wrapped up in the excitement. Be sure to place some bets down to get the full experience.

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The town of Cheltenham turns racing mad for four days and the city will be alive with race related events. It is impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere. The town of Cheltenham is famous for its quintessential Britishness and is one of the UK’s most famous examples of Regency architecture. Surrounding the town is also the beautiful British countryside that is perfect for walking in if you need a breather from all the excitement. Cheltenham is easy to get to as there is a direct train line from London, which takes less than 3 hours making it the perfect day excursion.

So if you are in the UK in March and want to experience some British heritage be sure to come down to the races. UK horse racing specialists Betfair who cover the event call it the “the greatest four days in jumps racing”. There is certainly no event like it and you will get to encounter a side of the British population that can’t be found in the city.

The Curse of Traveling Gluten-free

I recently discovered that I’m gluten intolerant. I’ve probably been for a while but only figured it out in August because a horse back rider on tour with me was a dietitian and tested me for it. I’m not a food blogger but food is a huge part of traveling, and gluten is a huge part of food, so being gluten intolerant causes some problems on the road. Personally, its made me crave sugar and sweets much more, so replacing bread with chocolates could slowly turn me fat… or super hyper.

I couldnt eat the khachapuri (bread boat) in Georgia

I couldnt eat the khachapuri (bread boat) in Georgia

Not being able to eat gluten doesnt just mean you have to skip your toast at breakfast – it means you can’t eat hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, croissants, donuts or even french toast 😦 Worse than that, you can’t drink beer. Beer is an international social drink, and so many things happen around it, and on a super hot day, having an ice cold, salt-rimmed Corona with a lime in it just isn’t beatable.

Thank God I’m not vegetarian, and only God knows how vegetarians (or worse yet, vegans) survive on the road. But hey, I may as well give up meat too because its so unusual to eat meat without some form of bread (ie. here in the Caucasus you can’t be served meat without some sort of bread accompanying it or wrapped around it like lavash) and eating the meat without the bread means your no longer eating a hamburger, but a piece of meat with some salad.

atleast tomatoes, hummus and wine are still kosher

atleast tomatoes, hummus and wine are still kosher

I would much rather be lactose intolerant (and they have pills for that!), since milk and cheese are foods I’d rather give up than pasta or pizza. Oh pasta, how I crave to eat those mushy little noodles with Bolognese sauce. Or a cheesy tomatoey pepperoni pizza. Sigh. And how will I live without instant noodles, my go-to comfort food, always cheap and sold in every supermarket around the world? Or chicken noodle soup, chow mein or roti? I guess its rice and a lot of potatoes from here on out. And vegetables. But I’m going to have small tears well up in my eyes everytime I pass by a bakery with the smell of freshly baked bread, and the next time I see a sketchy street food seller with all sorts of doughy deep fried things, I’ll have to walk away and find the even more sketchy meat on a stick seller and hope its not dog. I’ve always thought bakers were more trustworthy than butchers, but I’ll just have to get used to getting a little Delhi belly once in a while.

The World is a Circus

I see many strange things when traveling, things I’ve never seen before or never imagined. I had one day on the road that felt like all the people around me were part of a circus set that I had accidentally gotten lost amidst. There was a guy walking around with a (live) bird in a cup, for no apparent reason. There was a huge and hairy transvestite wearing a belly dance costume dancing to hindi music, but not for money (there was no hat), just for fun. Beside him/her were amputees begging, each with a few euro cents in their hat, behind me was a midget making gigantic bubbles with two sticks, some string and a soapy bucket, and a fully covered Muslim woman walked passed without noticing any of this. When I thought I’d seen it all, a 9 year old gypsy kid carrying a drum lit up a cigarette. Before I could remember where I was, I turned to the next ATM to maybe withdraw some money, but a bird had chosen to nest there for the day. Since then, I saw an Oklahoma license plate in Kosovo, and learned that the garbage trucks in Prizren sing songs… just like the ice cream trucks in Canada.

In England a couple weeks ago, I heard people speaking English that I couldn’t understand a single word of. I couchsurfed in Liverpool in an old brick factory warehouse where 10 or 15 people live semi-illegally. I tasted dozens of sour beers at a beer-festival In Manchester, since apparently sour beers are ‘in,’ but it tastes like rotten cider without any sugar and I’m not sure why everyone’s making it. The alternatives weren’t all that better, since the English like warm, flat ales and really dark and heavy stouts, but thankfully there was an actual cider brewer where I could taste something yummy and familiar.

The ferry from Liverpool to the Isle of Man takes 2 hrs and 45 mins because it can’t sail in a straight line; if it wasn’t for all the windmill farms in the Irish sea, the ferry could avoid its zig-zag course and get there in less than 2 hours. Sailing past gigantic, white posts with rotating blades standing in the middle of an open sea made me feel like I was on another planet.

And beyond all the strange sights is the strange world of money. The cost of things here and there and the exchange rates of currencies from different countries seems like a game of monopoly, or a gambling game that has no explanation. For example, from Reykjavik it’s faster and cheaper to fly to Manchester 1000 miles away than drive to Akureryi 235 miles away. A return ticket on the Liverpool subway is £1.80 but a one way is £1.75. Carlsberg is cheaper than a local beer in England, and Tuborg is cheaper than a local beer in Montenegro, when Carlsberg and Tuborg both come from one of the most expensive countries in the world, Denmark.

In Serbia and around, bottles of wine are more commonly in 1L bottles, and get capped with a beer tap instead of a cork. You can eat a whole meal for €1 but a coca cola might cost you €1.60. In the Balkans, a carton of cigarettes might cost 15 euros on the street, but cost 35 euros taxless in the airport duty-free… ? The taxi ride to a bus station or airport might cost you more than the bus ticket or even the flight, with Ryanair, Easy Jet and Wizzair all serving the Balkans with flights starting at £15.

But, without all these idiosyncrasies, traveling wouldn’t be traveling, since it’s the weird and crazy, nonsensical things that make it fun, challenging, and different than sitting at home. So bring on the circus, I’m sure they have space for another clown.

Happy Valentine´s Day

A Copy of my Guide to Iceland Valentine´s Day post:

Today is a day for love and lovers, to share St. Valentine’s joy and all the cheesy romance one can possibly handle.

St. Valentines day is not really a big deal in Reykjavik, but at least a few lucky souls will be getting red roses or boxes of chocolates today. It’s a beautiful sunny day so maybe you’ll meet someone cute at the pool or walking their dog in the park. No one who wants to celebrate Valentines day should stay at home alone tonight, so just ask that person you’ve had your eye on for a while out on a date!

And for all you lucky people in lovely relationships – try not to rub it in to all the sensitive singles. Today’s a day when facebook, twitter, and instagram overflow with pretty pictures of flower bouquets every woman wishes she had, and all the  wall posts of how much you love your ‘baby boo’ could really be sent as a private sms instead. But for all the sensitive singles out there, don’t use social media to advertise just how single and alone you feel – it makes the happy couples feel bad to know youre at home watching the Notebook alone while cuddling your cat(s). Its also not nice to hate on Valentines day or publicly complain how stupid a holiday it is, because if youre angry and bitter on the one day a year when we’re supposed to celebrate love, then you must be a pretty grumpy person anyway and no one needs grumpy people in their lives.

Just remember that Valentines day is not just for romantic love, but to celebrate the love of friends and family too. I had my first Valentines date today with the one and only man in my life – my dad. Im going on a hot date tonight with my girlfriend (clarification: a friend who is a girl, we’re not dating), and we’ll be salsa dancing at Thorvaldsen if anyone else is dateless tonight and wants to learn Salsa!

If you are wondering what to be happy about today if you don’t have a Valentines date, then you should remember: todays a day when all those handsome bachelors and independent woman can celebrate how great it is to meet new people, flirt freely, date whoever (and however many) people they like, and never have to deal with the drama of relationships. Think about how much time and money you save without a partner, and how endless the opportunities are for meeting someone beautiful here in Reykjavik (Iceland has some of the most beautiful people in the world according to various sources, with the most Miss Universes per capita than any other nation!). With the liberal nightlife scene in Iceland, you can always fill your life with romance and a healthy sex life without a boyfriend or girlfriend in Iceland, so, cheers to that!

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

 

The Tale of the Traveling Freewaters Sandals… coming soon!

Eli from Freewaters sent me my second ‘installment’ of sandals, from the 2013 line coming out in January, and it was a little ironic to open a box of 5 shiny new flip flops while a windstorm blew outside with -2` temperatures in Reykjavik. I realized I wouldn’t get much use out of them here, at least not now, but I have a trip coming up in December to Morocco and Portugal to look forward to. Although, I am flying with some (dreaded) cheap airlines with all sorts of carry on baggage restrictions, and doubt Ill pack all 5 pairs with me. How to choose which ones to take and which ones to leave? My goal has sort of been to get as much mileage out of each pair in as many sandal-friendly places as possible, letting each pair tell a story from the wear and tear of all my steps.

freewaters sandals

Then, I had this marvelous idea – do you remember the movie ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,’ based on the novel by Ann Brashares? Why not have one pair of sandals travel between travelers and us correspond among eachother about where they went and what happened in them? It could be the backpackhers hood of the traveling sandals… or something like that… Im going to keep a logbook of everyone that wears them, where they go and how far they walk, until the traveler who is unlucky enough to see their last day finally buries them. Then Ill be sure to write a blog about it.

the Marigot harbour, where my Capetowns retired in February

From my first few pairs of sandals, most are still in perfect shape, minus a few scratches here and there, but I buried my only pair of Freewaters in St. Martin in the French West Indies. I was standing in Marigot harbour, rushing to pay for my ferry ticket to St. Barthelemy, and as I ran to board the ferry, my right foot Cape Town sandal tore between the toes. I stood there for a lamenting second, feeling sad and sorry for the perfectly good left shoe I now had to leave behind too, and then slipped them both off and jumped on the ferry bare foot. As we pushed off, I saw the ticket validating guy stroll casually over to the pair of shoes, pick up the right one, and start to try to fix it. He looked up at me and waved at me with my broken shoe, and yelled something in creole french I don’t remember. But I yelled back, ‘Good Luck, you can keep them!’

Eli sent me a new pair of Cape Towns, and they will become the Traveling Freewaters Sandals, since those were the shoes who made it the furthest, and so far, created the best stories. I already have one traveler lined up to break them in; my friend Solveig from Iceland is taking them to Brazil for Carnival in Feburary. She gets back in the beginning of March, and will hand them back over to me. Then I’m thinking of taking them skiing in the Swiss Alps (to wear inside the saunas of course) or wine tasting in Italy, but they’re always up for grabs again between trips. All you need is to have shoe size 37-38, have a trip planned to somewhere flip-flop friendly, and send me your name, mailing address, and promise to return them with an accompanying travel story. So, if you’re going somewhere now or before February, or after March, send me a message!

(… or you can always buy your own pair http://www.freewaters.com . Learn their whole story at http://www.projectfreewaters.org )

 

Icelandic Studies

When I didn’t get funding granted for doing my Phd in forest ecotourism, I pulled a 360`turn and decided to enroll at the University of Iceland to study Icelandic History and Literature. It’s a program officially called “Medieval Icelandic Studies” and focuses on the sagas and manuscripts orally transmitted and eventually written in the 10th-13th centuries, but we spend almost all our time reading the secondary literature written on it by Medieval Icelandic specialists from all over the world. Some of the most highly regarded academics in this field come from the UK, the US, and even Australia, and have no connection to Iceland except their obsessive fascination, so it seems an honour to be able to study these topics in the homeland, as a native Icelander.

the codex regius

The classes are held at the Árni Magnússon Institute, a building on campus that holds manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. They have, what some consider to be the single most important man-made item in Icelandic history and culture (see http://www.sagenhaftes-island.is/en/book-of-the-month/nr/2582), the Codex Regius, a book that tells of Kings Sagas, Nordic Mythology and epic poetry. We got to meet the book, a small, wooden-bound book of thin, fragile pages, and I remember wondering if or when I would ever get to touch something so hold ever again. The text was still legible, in beautiful script, and many words still comprehensible to the speaker of modern Icelandic. Some letters and words were strange, but familiar names like Loki and Freya had their names written their some 900 years ago for me to read today.

The courses we take are based on the Icelandic Medieval manuscripts, discussing all the stories therein and wondering how fact or fictional some of these records can be to represent the daily life and culture of Icelanders in those times. We dissect the poetry and kennings, all the foreign words and heitis used to rhyme, and compare different transcriptions of the same story. We read  secondary literature on how the laws were used, first in oral tradition, and then how written law changed the administration and legistlation of courts. We discuss the Christianization of Iceland, and how the Christianized scribes may have altered manuscripts they copied. We look at archeological evidence of Paganism and Christianity, and the influence of latin on our written culture and diction.

We take a mandatory course in Old Icelandic, which feels somehow like a course in Proto-Old-Norse, and may be what Italian or Spanish speakers feel like learning Latin… I dunno. I worry I´ll be better at reading, writing and even speaking Old Icelandic by the time I finish this program, since its an extremely strict, regimented and dense way of teaching students to be able to read and translate the sagas from the original sources.

Then you can take courses on Modern Icelandic literature, divulge in some Laxness and Sjón, modern Icelandic language, Icelandic Culture, and the history of Medieval Scandinavia. Whenever I´m sitting in class, I look around at the other students – males and females, age 20-50, from Hungary, Poland, Germany, England, Colombia, the States, and very few from Iceland or other Scandinavian countries – and wonder what the initial appeal is to start such a program. Is it the glorified viking? Is it the Old-Norse-Icelandic literary corpus that rivals all other historical literary works in Europe? Is it the sagas and Nordic mythology of Thor’s hammer and Sif’s golden hair? I’m not sure, but I somehow felt obligated to take the program and learn this for the sake of being Icelandic, but now I’m realizing that this may be one of the most interesting fields of academic study any linguist or historian could ever take, and I’m glad I fell into it without knowing what a pleasant surprise it could be.

Now, if only I’d stop blogging and be able to keep up with my readings, papers and exams… I had no idea it could be this much work to become a Master in Icelandic studies, especially since I thought I somehow had an advantage by being Icelandic (which isn’t the case, since I know much less than the Danish guy sitting beside me describing why Odin is depicted with 2 dragons in a 14th century manuscript I’d never heard of til now).