How to Pack Light

We’re all getting sick of those airline policies that charge for checked baggage and limit our carry on to some unusual dimensions weighing 8, 10 or 12kg. But, those same budget airlines are still keeping travel possible for a large majority of students and lower-income countries, so I have nothing bad to say about those rules. Instead, I’ve figured out how to work the system, since flying from London to Budapest for €24 is cheaper than taking a train from London Heathrow to London town and who wouldn’t rather fly across Europe than commute in the slow, expensive London underground?

I’ve also learned that whatever you need with you for a weekend getaway, is the same things you would need for a week-long trip. And once you have what you need for a whole week, those things don’t change week to week so you can definitely survive off the same supplies for months – if you’re good at handwashing clothes in the shower.

my backpack is light enough to carry anytime, anywhere

What I pack:

My passport(s)

A wallet with credit cards + $500-$1000 in cash, a mix of $ and €, or £

A pair of Freewater sandals, one pair of dancing flats (or heels, if Im going to Argentina)

2 changes of clothes, and just a couple pairs of socks and underwear that i can hand wash. 

Travel towel and bikini

a scarf that doubles as a shawl and blanket

One warm jacket, and one waterproof jacket or umbrella

Hammock (with a built in mosquito net)

Sleeping bag (the carrying bag, when empty, can be filled with clothes and double as a pillow when sleeping)

If Im camping, I bring a mummy tent and a flashlight

A toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo and a few other toiletries thingys

A water bottle, some bags of tea, and a spork or swiss army knife I can fly carry-on with

My diary, notebook and a pen

A book or my kindle

A deck of cards and/or a mini magnetic chess board

My smart phone and earphones, sometimes my MacBook

chilling in a hammock on long boat trips is life-saving

I wear comfortable shoes I can run/hike in, yoga leggings, a reversible lululemon sweater jacket and a black camis with a built in bra. And thats basically it. All in all, my bag is usually around 10kg, with a bit of empty space left to buy something on my way home, and also enough small heavy things that I can shove in my pockets to bring the weight under 8kg if I need to. Always a good trick to wear a jacket with big pockets or travel with a fanny pack purse that, when attached as a belt, doesn’t count as a piece of carry on.

The Westmann Islands in August

My father’s burial anniversary was a year ago last week. And this is the same week when pufflings start to appear all over the streets of Heimaey. When leaving their tunnel nests in the cliffs, they are meant to fly out to sea with the moonlight as a guide, but they get confused with the street lights in town. So they end up flapping up and down the streets looking for a way out to sea, but still unable to fly.

Setting pufflings free on Herjólfur

Its become a custom to catch these little pufflings and release them, by throwing them off a cliff, which is the best way to get them safely to fly to sea. They will then live on the ocean until they come back to the cliffs around Iceland next spring, and dig more tunnel nests to make more puffling babies.

Henri releases his first puffling

I went with 4 friends, 3 of which had never seen a puffin, and we all got to release a puffin. My cousin had caught 2, and a friendly family also puffin throwing from the same cliff gave us 2 more to release. I think they were excited to see tourists, a life of the outside world still in Iceland, and we were so warmly welcomed on the island. My aunty invited us in for coffee, despite covid fears, and the swimming pool was open (and empty) but they still turned on the slides for us to race down over and over like little kids.

Hiking up Heimaklettur

We had an amazing meal at Slippurinn, and hiked up Heimaklettur for some stunning sunset views. We were lucky with incredible weather, and managed to eat brunch the next morning outside in the garden of my father´s childhood home. My paid my father´s grave a visit, paid our respects and lit some candles. I think he would have been happy to see us. 

RIP

Wilderness Expedition

Its an annual tradition to make it out to Hestasport, once a summer, for the most epic of all horse trips. Appropriately, they call it the Wilderness Expedition, and it is one of the longest and most difficult journeys you can make on horse back – 7 riding days, 25-40km per day.

Hestasport

Despite covid tests and limited flights, eleven people still made it to Iceland for the trip. Every single person was German or German speaking, and luckily two of our staff were too. Unlucky for me, I only had the two horse men and two super jeep drivers to speak Icelandic with, although everyone forgave me for english.

into the wild

We were meant to ride north over Hofsjökull but didn´t quite make it as close as we wanted. Ingólfskáli was our destination, but we made a bit of a shortcut from Vesturdalur to Laugafell.

our team of riders

We had the most incredible rain when riding 50km back out Austurdalur, soaked completely thru and thru to the bone (us and the horses), but we made it to the abandoned farm of Merkigil where a hot shower and elctricity finally awaited us again.

Merkigil

We rode down and up thru ´amazing canyon´, as the name suggests, before taking the last sprint back to civilisation. I had two friends with me who lost quite a bit of weight and put on some muscle instead, but how grateful and respectful I am to these amazing animals – the Icelandic horse truly is the Icelander´s best friend.

Gordon and Mjölnir, my transport

Covid returns, tourism departs – keep calm and carry on!

July was a fast and a furious month of summer living in Iceland, and with the borders open, covid was just as quick to return. Its been amazing to watch how adaptive, and respectful, society is, picking up where things left off last time, but this time with less hysteria. Covid living has normalized somehow, and hopefully others also feel the anxiety melting away as real life keeps keeps on keeping on.

It seemed like a blurry dream, when things were just getting better and better and everyone had almost forgotten the 2 m rule, but instead of taking the next step to open up more (people were so excited for concerts, street festivals and late night bars), the 2m rule rule and a gathering ban returned.

a mini brekkusöng – a bit of music festival feeling on Heimaey with my relatives (and Víðir!) during goslokahátið on the 4th of July

Þjóðhátið on Heimaey in the Westmann Islands was cancelled, which was probably simpler than trying to hold it for only 5,000 people when the regular attendance is closer to 20,000. Weddings and baptisms have been delayed for a second time, realistically not earlier than September or October. Airwaves in November has little or no chance of being organized, and worst of all, Gay Pride and Menningarnótt will cease to be in 2020.

this was the hardest hotspring to find in the westfjords

Hiking and natural hotspring hunting continue, and my one and only horse trip as a tour guide just barely slipped thru the cracks – two weeks later and it wouldn´t have happened. A mandatory 5 day and double covid test requirement will kick in August 19, deterring the majority of tourists to come visit Iceland at all.

kayaking is solitary and socially well distanced

I had gotten used to kayaking, biking and horse back riding alone, or in small groups, and the covid friendliness of those activities made them feel extra familiar to return to. I didn´t miss the lines to the swimming pools, but at least the swimming pools stayed open this time.

Nauthólsvík, before the gathering ban rule returned

Nauthólsvík beach is a charmed destination, in any weather, and fishing on the sea or on a river bank also does something for your sanity. Water is a type of landscape therapy to me, and it makes me feel less stranded on this island.

The Faroe Islands and Olafsvaka

Its been a long and productive summer so far, having started traveling around Iceland since March, but after three and a half months in the same country, my wanderlust genes were calling for a trip abroad. Covid had lightened up enough for flights to resume, but I didn’t quite trust small spaces and airports yet.

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Gásadalur on Vágar

Lucky for Iceland, we’ve got the Smyril line ferry, connecting us to Europe thru the Faroes, and they had some killer sales on for return trips with a car. My silver fox campvervan finally got to go on a trip with me 🙂

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Guðný in old town Tórshavn

My roommate Gudny was my partner in crime, and we set off to see and do all that we could in the Faroes. With covid virtually non-existent, we knew we’d get a glimpse of nightlife and street partying since we were visiting exactly during Olafsvaka, the Faroe Islands biggest national holiday.

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the KOKS chefs

We had to try KOKS, the two-michelin star restaurant in an old farm house in Streymoy. We were definitely the only guests who got ready in a campervan and then camped after such an expensive meal, but it wasn’t exactly fine dining the way you know it – the smell of ‘ræst´, the Faroese umami, was akin to aged, salty and smelly things one thinks twice about eating.

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hiking out to Trælnipan

We visited most islands, regrettfully missing only Mykines and Nólsoy. We have to go back for Sandoy and Suduroy too, but our  favourite was probably Bordoy. Every island had a magical view and a special corner, and we tried our best to hike as much as we would.

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pretty small town homes

In Klaksvik, we went swimming and spa-ing, and made a bunch of friends, from 3 young French sailers, to the Icelandic owner of Roystkovan bar. We ended up in an afterparty with all the staff eating cheese platters and drinking Faroese cider, a perfect warm up for the coming festival in Torshavn.

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Olafsvaka outdoor singing

We made friends at KOKS who connected us to good people in Torshavn, where we could camp park outside their house and finally use a civilized toilet. The festivities began with everyone dressing up in beautiful, traditional clothing, complete with some expensive bling bling buttons. There were Icelandic horses and choirs in the street, and for the first time since Mardi Gras, I felt like I was really in a non-socially-distanced crowd of drunk people. What a good way to travel back to pre-covid times, reliving those good old days!

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Olafsvaka opening ceremony

After enough new friends and missed islands, and an extremely pleasant sailing with Norraena ferry, Faroes is high on my go-back-to list, and it may be one of the only places that will stay easily accesible to Icelanders during this pandemic – and I highly recommend it!

Hornstrandir: Westfjords Part II

Next visit to the westfjords for Guðný and me was the opposite end of the westfjords: Norðurfjörður. We took Paula with us, driving from Staðaskáli up the eastern road to Hólmavík. We stopped for our last hot meal and some groceries, and set up our campervan from Camper Iceland near the Norðurfjörður harbour to wait for our boat the next morning. We took a dip at Krossneslaug before falling asleep, and then shuttled out to Látravík at Hornbjarg bright and early with Gjá Strandferðir.

Gjá strandferðir ferry boat anchored in Norðurfjörður

Our plan was to spend one day around the Hornbjarg cliffs, hiking to the famous Kálfatindar and finding some puffins to oogle. It was raining when we arrived and foggy when we finally set up camp, but in between we got a break in the clouds and sunshine right on time for our bird watching and cliff climbing.

Guðny and Paula at Hornbjarg cliffs

We camped beside the Ferðafélag íslands hut near the lighthouse, and got invited into the hut by a group of Icelandic friends. They were having a small party, and invited us for a warm chicken and rice dinner, chocolate cake and wine – all we did in exchange was wash some dishes!

Látravík

The next 3 days, we were meant to make our way south to Reykjafjörður, but a storm was brewing and the wardens warned us to get to shelter no later than the next night. So after an easy 16km day with no packs, we now had to make it nearly 40km with packs in 36 hours. It wasn´t an option to sit and wait for the storm, and then wait it out, at the lighthouse, so we headed off optimistically. We made it 18km that day, camping at Barðsvík and crossing its beautiful beach around midnight.

the calm before the storm

We waited for low tide the next morning to make it out and around the fjord to Bolungarvík, and all the way into the bottom of Furufjörður where we met a nice local family. They directed us to the best place to cross the river, as the glacier melt from Drangsjökull would now start to affect our hike. We had to make it up and over to Þaralátursfjörður where the most threatening glacier river awaited, and we waded over it nearly waist high merely hours before it flooded and became impassable.

low tide around Bolungarvík

Our home stretch was to get up and over to Reykjafjörður, where we dropped down into a field of Kria birds, angrily protecting their nests as the wind and rain picked up. We got into a hut around 8:30 or 9, soaked to the bone, and jumped into the pool to watch the full force of the storm swing in by 10:30.

the bridged river crossings weren´t necessarily easier, but at least we saw plenty of Arctic foxes

For the next 3 days, the entire Hornstrandir Nature reserve was on lock down, all hiking shut down and hikers ordered to seek shelter. We spent our 4 nights in the coziest of shelters, and I felt a pang of guilt for the others I knew were only in some lightless, unheated emergency shelters.

our home and Reykjafjarðalaug pool in the background

We didn´t quite have enough food for 3 extra days, but we had neighbours in the valley to befriend. We exchanged work for food with a man named Hallgrímur, who was painting the inside of his house, and we received no less than boiled arctic char and reindeer meat for our time. We bathed twice daily, played cards and read books, in no rush to leave.

what a magical place

When the boat could finally pick us up, the seas calmed, but remained brown, and many of the poor Kria nests had flooded and drowned the younglings. We said goodbye to our new friends and promised to come back and see the house we helped paint, and even if the weather was good, try to get stuck and stay a while.

Iceland is Open

Icelandair starting resuming some kind of scheduled flights finally on June 15, and since then its been a gradual increase in normality. It comes at such perfect timing, as summer blossoms to its brightest days and everything has finally turned green. The highlands have opened and all the hard to reach places, including Hornstrandir and secret fly fishing salmon rivers.

big salmon fishermen at Blanda

Seeing as I had no work this summer, a problem most tour guides shared, I got to travel domestically with plenty of free time to explore local rivers. I visited a few for the first time, including Norðurá and Blandá, where friends help run these lodges. I got to work a few days at Blanda, with the lovely Erik Koberling, and even fished my first salmon of the season there in the lower beat.

fishing at Blanda

I visited Þverá and Kjarrá a handful of times, also working a few days at each lodge. I only lost 1 sea trout at Þverá, but got to take 4 home after spending a day driving the guides Gími and Egill around fishing. I fished at Haukadalsá and caught nothing, but had endless happy hours on the riverbank with the other more serious fishermen.

Kerlingarfjoll

The highland roads have opened, making some of my favourite summer destinations finally accessible. I´ll find myself in the Hveravellir pool atleast 3 or 4 times this summer, definitely twice at Laugafell pool, and visit Kerlingarfjoll a couple of times. The hot pool there is a bit of a hike, so I may not make it into the pool there everytime, but its important to find refuge in a mountain cabin with a good supply of natural hot water springs.

golf at Húsafell

Now that covid restrictions are relaxing, its time for more yoga and golf, and taking advantage of all kinds of sales and package deals around the country. I can finally stay at Icelandic hotels as a guest, not a guide, and even go horse back riding as a tourist. I can play golf and check out the new spa at Húsafell, the Canyon Baths. Going out for bike rides and hosting jam sessions with musicians is finally okay, and we´ve been making great progess with our band Tunesdays and our first (soon-to-be-hit) single ´Fluffy Cougar Bear.´

Bike gang and Tunesdays members Sandra and Steve looking at a midnight sun

The days are still long, nearly 24 hours long frankly, and even politics seem normal again. On the presidential election held June 27th, Guðni Th. was voted in again, and will be again and again for years to come. Hopefully our PM and government can keep the country out of any major crises, and life and economics can slowly creep back to normal, pre-covid. Although, it´s been kinda nice to slow down and simplify, so hopefully it doesn´t happen too fast.

Westfjords and yoga

Guðný and I lived together all winter, but rarely saw each other due to work, travel and other normal things pre-covid life. When summer came around, she moved back to her countryside farm and we had to make a 3 part summer adventure plan to make sure we wouldn´t miss eachother too much.

a bonfire for the summer solstice in Önundafjörður

Part 1 took us to a yoga retreat in Önundafjörður, hosted by the lovely Iris and Andrea behind jógabíllin, the yoga campervan that drove around Iceland in May giving everyone free, outdoor yoga classes. We stayed at Hotel Holt Inn and practiced yoga on the nearby pier, and extended our stay in Önundarfjörður with an extra night at Flateyri. There we stayed in the most beautiful home, a recycled work in progress by the talented designer Halfdán Pedersen.

´fishing´at Flateyri harbour

To drive all the way to Flateyri for only a weekend was ambitious, so we added a few nights of adventures before and after the yoga retreat. We started on the southern and western ends of the Westfjords, bathing 3 times on some days in natural hot springs. Our first dip was at Guðrunarlaug at Laugar in Sælingsdalur.

Rauðisandur at 11pm

We camped at Rauðisandur beach and spent some time with the birds at Látrabjarg. We weaved our way thru all the small towns, Patreksfjörður, Tálknafjörður and Bíldudalur, and stopped for amazing coffee at Simbahöllin in Þingeyri.

the cliffs at Látrabjarg

We visited Dynjandi, more than once, and camped another night at Selárdalur after visiting Hrafnseyri, the museum dedicated to Icelandic hero Jón Sigurðsson.

sunset at Selárdalur

On our way home from the westfjords, we shortened the drive by taking the ferry from Bjarnslækur to Flatey, where the ferry Baldur would continue on with our car to Stykkisholmur, but we could jump out for the night and stay at Hotel Flatey. The weather was misty and cold when we checked in, but it didn´t discourage us from going for a seaswim. T

our view from Hotel Flatey

he next day was as sunny as summer weather gets, so we held a pop-up yoga class and invited the whole island. That only too a short walk, and with a turnout of nearly 20, it was almost 100% attendance from the island´s inhabitants.

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.