Backroads Beach Clean-Up Day

In honor of World Cleanup day coming up on September 15th, Backroads decided to join forces with SEEDS in Iceland to remove trash off a beautiful piece of beach on the west end of Reykjanes Peninsula. We were a group of nearly twenty volunteers, interested in giving back to Icelandic nature, protecting sea life and birds, and getting rid of all the disgusting pieces of plastic scattered along the coast.

the trash collection growing

Our meeting point was Grindavík, 10 am, on August 22nd. In charge of the project was legendary Tommi Knuts, founder of the Blue Army. He has been working for over 25 years to help clean and protect Iceland´s coast, and spent the day with us sharing insights into his project, vision, and environmental philosophies.

Tommi sharing his stories

The day started off optimistic – the weather had cooperated, and after getting the SEEDS van stuck in some sand for a moment, we were off on foot to scour the coastline for trash. Saga Films had a production team on site to document the project, interviewing Tommi and sharing his message with to others around Iceland.

clean up time

Tommi drove his bright blue Toyota Hilux (a donation to the Blue Army courtesy of Toyota) along the bumpy old road to the coast, where the only things around were a few birds and an old turf house ruin. And plenty of garbage – most of it has washed up on shore from the fishing industry. We used large coffee bean sacks to fill the larger white trash bags loaded on his trailer, and filled 6 or 7 metric-ton sized bags.

picnic time

At the end of a beautiful day on the beach, we filled our tummies with a true, snackroads style Backroads picnic, and the good deeds of the day filled our hearts. Backroads has donated to the Blue Army to help with the waste collection and processing, and plans to take part in Beach clean ups around Iceland every year from now on.

it´s amazing what you can find on a remote beach in Iceland

If you´d like to learn more about Tommi, the Blue Army, or World Clean-up day, then there are plenty of ways to get involved and help clean up garbage, either in Iceland or beaches around the world.

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Iceland in the World Cup 2018

Iceland only formed their first men´s football association in 1947, three years after becoming independent from Denmark. Since then, a few talented souls have made careers as players abroad. The best known footballers were arguably Gylfi Sigurdsson and Eidur Gudjohnsen until 2018, but now a handful of faces from the national team have become international prodigies. Birkir Bjarnason has become the familiar face of 66°N; Rurik Gislasson has become a heart throb world wide, loved even by the enemy when Iceland tied Argentina in their first World Cup game; and Hannes Halldorsson the goalie definitely deserves MVP for that first game where Messi just coulnd’t get past him. Now, they have rewritten football history, becoming the smallest country to ever qualify for the world cup, and risen from being ranked 133rd to 22nd within FIFIA.

watching the World Cup games from Ingolfstorg

The World Cup hype started two years ago during the Euro 2016 qualification. We started by playing Portugal, Hungary and Austria. We tied Portugal and Hungary 1-1, but beat Austria 2-1 to make it into the quarterfinals. The newscaster reporting on the Austria game nearly lost hist sanity (and his voice) and this youtube video is definitely worth listening to: it gives you a glimpse of what every Icelander was feeling in that moment. Then we beat England 2-1, (that video is also a must see) another incredible victory, and France finally put out our unstoppable fire with a humbling 5-2 loss.

The World Cup in Russia 2018 crept up so slowly, but the hype never faded, and the planning and suspense was constant. 66°N designed special clothing for the games and Icelandair painted the plane into an Icelandic Flag that flew the team over. Both of our national airline carries made special schedules and flew direct routes to each one of the first three games. And a sea of Icelandic-blue fans flocked to the various stadiums in Russia to watch the games live, sing in the stands, and clap and cheer the ‘HÚH!’

The games started well: June 16 we tied Argentina 1-1, in an impressive display of defence. June 22 we faced Nigeria, perhaps with a bit too much offensive, underestimating their plans of kicking our butts 2-0. The Croatia game on June 26 was powerful, in fact, unbearable to watch, because we really had it. We played so well, and we had the chance to edge ourselves into the quarter finals if we had just sunk one of those goal attempts. It wasn´t until the last seconds of the game that we believed we weren´t going forward. However, watching Croatia make it to the final and knowing how we played them gives us all the more reason to be proud of Team Iceland and their first performance at the World Cup.

For the sake of Reykjavik´s very few reasons to congregate outside in the city centres and the prideful, social unity of a country over one sport we witnessed this summer, I sincerely hope we make it to every Euro qualifier AND world cup in the future. Thanks to the team for giving us such incredible representation, and even more reasons for tourists to keep flooding our talented little country.

The 26 days of Christmas

Christmas in Iceland is special for a lot of reasons, like the food, weird yule lads, short days and northern lights nights, but nothing beats Christmas in Iceland because we have 26 days of it.

Christmas starts 13 days before Christmas eve, when the first yule lad comes down from the mountains. After all 13 have come down, one by one per day, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve evening, usually around 6pm. We have smoked and boiled lamb with green beans and red cabbage, and open all our gifts that night, and Christmas day is spent at home with friends and family doing very little except eating the leftovers and cooking and baking more Christmas food.

Christmas Eve was spent eating smoked lamb with these two handsome men

The smelliest night of Christmas is arguably December 23rd, what we call Thorlaksmessa, when people boil pots of fermented stingray for hours without ever adding water, so the ever-increasing, pungent smell of ammonia quickly absorbs into your hair and clothes (and takes a couple of washes to get out).

The loudest day of Christmas is New Years Eve, which Icelanders more appropriately call Old Years night. Iceland is the only country in the world where you can actually hear the New Year arrive, since the intensity of fireworks climaxes at midnight like an out-of-tune percussion symphony. It’s also a pretty smelly night if there’s no wind, since all that smoke from a million kronur of explosives creates a fair bit of pollution.

The last of the fireworks

The hottest day of Christmas are the “brenna” or bonfires. On New Year’s Eve and the last day of Christmas, various neighborhoods around Reykjavík collect huge piles of inflammable junk – furniture, pallets, Christmas trees and even mattresses – and create fires as big as houses. It’s a way to clean out your closets, literally and figuratively, and burn away all the baggage from last year to start clean.

The last day of Christmas is the “Thirteenth” (þrettándinn), January 6 when the last of the 13 yule lads has returned back to the mountains. As I write this, Reykjavik has started to light up again, as everyone finishes the last of their fireworks. It’s only legal to fire fireworks during Christmas, so after midnight tonight you could technically be fined. The city will be even darker tomorrow since Christmas lights and decorations will also get put away. The sidewalks of Reykjavík have already started filling up with Christmas trees that won’t be needed to be cut down again til next year. The radio will stop playing Christmas music, and the harsh reality that the last day of Christmas does not mean the last day of winter will start to sink in. A couple of days ago, the street lights never shut off automatically because the cloudy skies and lack of snow meant the daylight never became bright enough to convince the sensors that it was day time.

the first Saturday ride of the year for these horses and horsepeople

For most, this is a time to buckle down the budget, face impossible new years resolutions, and start the year fresh and optimistic. We do have the assurance that days are getting longer, already for 2 weeks now, and we finally start to notice the difference. For the horse people in Reykjavik, its time to bring the riding horses into the stables and start training. For me, its a time to hole up and write a book, and book the cheapest one way ticket out of here until summer.

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.

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.