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

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

the abnormally empty streets of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur in downtown Reykjavik

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

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

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

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

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

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

How many countries are there in the world?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeira

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

on the top of Madeira

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

wine tasting at H.M. Borges

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

Funchal tourism has a lot to thank Ronaldo

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

Porto Moniz

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

the cable car of Santana going down to Rocha do Novio

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

The Azores Islands

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

Lago do Fogo, Sao Miguel island

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

ocean arches at Ferreria, Sao Miguel

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

Pico island and the peak on a clear day

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

the west end of Faial, Farol of Ponta dos Capelinhos

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

Madalena church, Pico island

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

one of Sao Jorge’s many faja towns

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

the milk man delivery truck

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

Angra do Heroismo central square, facing the beach

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

Great seafood and oceanfront seating at Bar Caloura, Sao Miguel

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

Mardi Gras & Ash Wednesday in NOLA

I knew, since 2009, that Mardi Gras would fall on my birthday in 2020 and I´ve literally been avoiding New Orleans until now because of that. Turning 33 isnt a big deal really, but having 3 wonderful women and close friends fly in from all around the world for it was a big deal to me. Coincidentally, I also knew someone thru work thats from NOLA, and an Icelandic friend happened to be visiting NOLA at the same time for Mardi Gras, so I can say I had 5 special people to share time with.

feeling blessed with this company

I haven´t even been to Louisiana before, and I was excited about the weirdest things like oysters and Tabasco sauce. Both of those were great things, in fact the fresh oysters I had at Crescent City Brewhouse are the best I´ve ever had, and the other touristic thing to must-do was sail on the Mississippi on a steamboat. Unfortunately the Natchez was docked for some repairs so a horse-drawn carriage ride thru the French Quarter was the most touristy thing we did.

our carriage was actually dragged by a mule

Then of course there was Mardi Gras. We missed the weekend before, which is a highlight for many, but arriving on a the Monday night before Fat Tuesday was already completely and utter culture shock. We followed Krewe de Poo from Rosalia Alley around Bywater, with drums and music to parade to, stopping occasionally for shopping cart wars. As you do.

straight out of my dreams

Mardi Gras day we watched the truck parade come down canal street and meandered down Bourbon Street trying to find the coolest beads. You usually had to flash 3 sets of boobs for a good necklace, so we had to be content with our normal beads. I settled for a yellow, green and purple feather boa and some face glitter, and when we had king´s cake in the Musical Legends Park, I got the baby!

king´s cake and the baby

I felt like I was on drugs just from watching the festival goers around me, but keeping a buzz all day wasn´t hard with the fishbowl cocktails. At midnight Bourbon street emptied from some chaotic scare (someone pulled a gun?) so we rang my birthday in at a bar on lockdown with a few tequila shots.

riding the street cars around, just for fun

Ash Wednesday was recovery day, and my wonderful friends took me to the Ace hotel rooftop for rosé and fish tacos. We went out that night to the oldest bar in Louisiana, Lafitte´s Blacksmith Shop Bar, and the first stand up bar in the country, Tujagues. The music and architecture constantly surrounding us was so memorable everywhere – it felt like I was in Disney themed park for an imagined New Orleans. The cajun food was delicious, since I love anything spicy, but I can´t quite figure out why King´s cake is so bad. And the baby really is a choking hazard.

 

Roadtrip USA

A little big city hopping in the states is always fun, especially in the early spring when everything and everyone starts sparking back to life. Festivals and carnivals start happening again, and the end goal of this roadtrip was Mardi Gras in New Orleans for my 33rd birthday.

NY, NY

I started in New York for a long weekend, staying with a friend in east village. Being half a block away from C avenue, there was plenty of night life, and the Zum Schneider bar was having its final Karneval after their 20 year rental agreement would end. I spent my days running or biking, and my evenings at meditation events with Franck Raharinosy or yoga classes at Humming Puppy.

Welcome to Miami!

My next stop was Miami, where I spent 3 days with a friend walking her dog, working remotely and lounging at the Soho Beach House. I rented a car and drove thru the Everglades to Anna Maria island, where my Danish friend and her family had rented an apartment at the Bali Hai beachfront resort. We waited for turtles and dolphins but a cold front came in and we bundled up for some windy beach walks instead.

roadtrip crew

I met my roommate from 2018 yoga teacher training in Goa in St. Petersburg, where she lives out of her campervan in between fairs and human statue gigs. Only a few miles later over a huge bridge, I finally arrived in Tampa where our roadtrip crew would assemble. Clio flew in from Colorado, Ditte the Dane and I picked her up and drove to my friend Mike´s place to wait for Jana to arrive from Germany. We went out for gin and tonics at the Gin Joint, meeting up with Clint of Travr, and crashed on couches with Mike´s cuddly dog until the next morning.

hiking around the alligator lakes of St. Mark´s National Wildlife refuge

We then drove thru Florida, Alabama and Mississippi to get to New Orleans, stopping for the night at Steinhatchee and Fort Walton. Steinhatchee had some great food and fluorescent coloured cocktails at Kathi´s Crabshack, followed by a live band at the County Line Bar where we made friends with all kinds of Trump supporters.

leaving the parade with beads and mooncakes

We drove through Mobile, Alabama right on time to witness America´s oldest Mardi Gras parade tradition, filling our pockets with mooncakes and our necks with colourful beads. Mississippi was gone in the blink of an eye, but we managed to stop at a microbrewery called Lazy Magnolia.

I often felt rather overdressed

Checking into our Airbnb just meters from the French Quarter was the highlight of the roadtrip, the feeling of finally arriving to the chaos of a fringe culture we were not dressed appropriately for. Our beads and basic clothing were miles away from others´costumes, but at our first Krew Poo parade, we realized noone cares how you look or what you wear, or if you wear nothing at all. The first night ended at a drag bar and some karaoke, and the next couple of days in and around Bourbon street were as much of a shock as many moments I remember from Burning Man.

Barbuda & Antigua

I wanted to go to Barbuda the first time I went to Antigua in 2012, but the ferry was broken down and Barbuda wasn’t accessible within the 5 days I was there. Then hurricane Irma screwed things up in 2017 so badly that Barbuda was completely deserted for months. The island was in shambles, everyone had evacuated, and noone was sure if it or when it would get rebuilt.

Two Foot Bay Cave

Now in 2020 people have returned home, rebuilt their 300 roofs that blew away, and some still have the emergency shelter tents provided by the US government… I guess as it works well as a spare room. I finally got to go there on a new ferry that sails from the end of the airport, and booked a day tour to get from A to B and on a boat to the bird sanctuary without a headache.

Frigate Bird Sanctuary

We went to the Frigate bird sanctuary to see the puffy red necks, one guy got shat on, visited a pink beach at the edge of the lagoon and another guy lost his sand-coloured flip-flops. We went to some old caves and Two Foot Bay, had lobster lunch on the beach, and ended our day at Princess Diana beach, also slightly pink, beside an ocean so blue no picture could do it justice.

the perfect beaches were endless in Barbuda

Im glad I made it to Barbuda, but Im happier that everyone else that calls its a home made it back first. Its also great they’ve opened their lives to tourism again, slowly building up with the return of ferries and flights. I hope the wild donkeys and dirt roads never change, but that everyone gets to finish rebuilding their homes. I’ll certainly come back, for the peace and quiet, and wouldn’t mind keeping those beaches to myself next time either.

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.

St. Martin & Sint Maarten

I lucked out more than once with accommodation on the island. First, I found an amazing couchsurf host on the French side that had a car and an interest in running on beaches, dining out and gambling for free drinks. I stayed with him at the start and end of my trip, and only had to pay for one night in a hostel which turned out not to be a hostel, but a crew base for yachtees. If I wasn’t working boats, I was a tourist, and was supposed to pay for the expensive hotels and resorts, but I accidentally snuck thru the cracks to pay $40 a night for a bed instead.

feasting on the beach

I did a bit of kayaking, beach lazing, swam with horses, watched planes land and take off at SXM and got lost amongst the cruise ship crowds every once in a while. I tasted some rum, rented a few beach chairs, and enjoyed pampering myself without having to drive anywhere (the island has great public transportation).

Great Bay beach, where the big cruise ships dock

I wanted a manicure and pedicure at the same time, and found a salon in Philipsburg where two latina girls were free to do both at the same time. I cringed in my seat as the cut, shaped, filed and exfoliated every digit, drawing blood a couple of times, but they were so into singing along with the Spanish gospel music playing from their phone that they didn’t notice me holding my breath.

swimming with horses

Whether you’re on the Dutch or French side, it’s a hit or miss what language to approach people in. Most spoke to me in English, Spanish or French, but drivers would also answer in Dutch and Creole, so it’s a wonder how much must get lost in translation, or never said at all. The French side had more exclusive Frenchies, white and wrinkled, sunkissed Metropoles who can’t speak a word of English and never let a dollar pass thru their hand – they live in a mini France, in French, with Euros and their Carrefour supermarkets, filled with delicacies and wines only from France.

Maho beach under the airplanes

The island is still re-developing from the disaster of Hurricane Irma, and dozens of buildings remain roofless and abandoned. Entire hotels have literally blown away, at least substantial bits of them, and parts of the facades or building frames stand like haunting reminders of the power of mother nature. Debris and dirt are still scattered anywhere that doesn’t matter, since people have seemingly given up trying to clean up all the mess – it barely seems possible, especially knowing the hurricane season will come back again and again.

yet another perfect beach

Saba, the unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean

Saba was my favourite, not surprisingly, but unexpectedly. It’s tiny, with one road going thru it, which has to go up and over from the two main coastal entry points: the airport on one side, or the ferry port on the other.

I loved Saba

The rest of the island’s coast is barely reachable, as Saba is basically a massive mountain rising straight out of the sea. Cliffs all around it’s edges keep the inhabitants inland and uphill, and the two major towns are simply ‘Windward’ and ‘The Bottom’, which is more like the only flat-ish part in the middle.

panoramic of Saba’s typical hilltop, red-roofed villages

Hiking trails circle the mountain, connecting towns and parishes and the few accessible shores. There’s no beaches, so jumping in the water can be done at the bottom of the ‘The Ladder’ trail (if you dont get swept away by huge waves on the rocks) or the harbour where boats share the port. The only thing resembling a beach was beside the airport, but the tide pools in the rocks below the runway were more appealing.

playing the conch shell by the airport cost to start our cross-island walk

We did a cross island walk, nearly 10km, one morning, which is just up up up for the first hour and a bit, then another hour just cruising back down, with a stop at the ‘top’ of Windward side. The top top of the island is Mt. Scenery, which marks the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom at 887m. You can hike to it in just under 2 hours from Windward side, but I stopped short at Mas’Cahone’s hill viewpoint since the peak was covered in misty clouds.

tidepools

Saba was clean, green and full of trails, an absolute hikers paradise. My favourite trek was the Sandy Cruz trail, which wraps halfway around the mountain from Upper Hell’s Gate to Troy’s Hill. Just after you reach the trail end, you’ll pass Queen’s Gardens Resort where you can opt for a $27 gin and tonic to cool down, or you can carry on down to ‘The Bottom’ and start hiking back up and over along the Crispeen Trail.

Mas’ Cahone’s viewpoint

The biggest highlight I missed out on completely – Saba is a diver’s dream. If you like underwater adventuring, this island has even more there than on land, at least so I’ve heard, so dont only go there for the landlocked nature.