The case for going off the beaten path

I know I just regaled you with the merits of tourist traps, but going off the beaten path is worth delving more deeply into.

I was first intrigued by the thought of traveling to Iceland because it wasn’t heavily trafficked. Mind you this was 5-6 years ago, and since then it has become quite the popular destination, with upwards of a million tourists a year – quite a lot for a country of 320,000 people. Even so, the attraction never faded for me.

So when I visited in 2014, I stuck to my philosophy of pursuing unique experiences by avoiding typical tourist attractions, and it was unbelievably rewarding. When driving up to the Westfjords, one of the least visited areas in Iceland, I pulled over and saw the Northern Lights above me, while a pod of 20+ whales frolicked in the water beside me. I found the experience to be extremely affirming since it happened by chance. This sort of thing happened repeatedly in the Westfjords, which is why I’m back here for another 3 weeks.

Before coming to the Westfjords this time around, I spent more time in the Southwest region of the country, where most tourists spend their time. After visiting some of the hot spots (literally!) we pursued lesser-known areas, such as the ghost museum in Stokkseyri.

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While this museum isn’t exactly unheard of, it’s a decent drive from Reykjavík and the most popular tours will take you to the famous natural attractions, like Geysir and Gullfoss, rather than spooky ghost museums. But they should take tourists here. I can’t speak more highly of this museum, as a person who seeks authentic experiences and also has a penchant for the supernatural world. Designed somewhat like an American haunted house, this museum puts you on a guided tour of Iceland’s most famous ghost stories, and the way it’s set up makes you feel like you were actually there when they happened. It’s a great way to learn about traditional Icelandic folklore, and to feel genuine terror! All for only $15.

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After being sufficiently spooked out, we headed to a town called Hella, which I wanted to visit since “hella” is a popular colloquialism originating in my home region. What I didn’t know is that Hella is dotted with caves built as late as the 14th century, and formerly used by monks. If I spoke Icelandic, I would know that the root word “hellar” means caves.

Our Icelandic friend Hákon had vacationed here when he was younger and used to explore the caves with his siblings. Now it was our turn to explore. I’ve illustrated one of the entrances to the underground network above, and you can see what one of the cave tunnels looks like in the photo below.

IMG_2266It was genuinely scary exploring those caves, especially after spending the previous hour learning about all the ghosts and spirits that haunt the exact area we were in. I’m fairly sure we were trespassing, but a quick Google search tells me that a cave tour exists, though that same search reveals it is pretty much unknown.

I categorize this experience under Locals Only, and I’m extremely grateful to have had it. These caves make Iceland what it is, and could have only happened under the right mixture of circumstances. It’s something I will never forget, and reminds me why it’s important to go off the beaten path – away from the tourist traps and why sometimes risks should be taken.

In other news, Michael is the proud new owner of a Lopapeysa, the quintessential piece of Icelandic clothing. Made from Icelandic sheep’s wool, it is insulating, hardy, and beautifully designed. I illustrated his purchase below.

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The case for tourist attractions

I’ve always sought authentic travel experiences. The idea of flying halfway across the world just to spend all my time at the most photographed locations on the planet has never made any sense to me, not when unique stories and unexpected turns of events were out there to be discovered.

My earliest travel experiences come from my teenage years, when I attended Adventures Cross Country, a company that organizes groups of teens on adventure-focused trips for weeks at a time. The summer of my 13th year was spent (begrudgingly at first) hiking through the backcountry of British Columbia, and it was there that my travel preferences, and my sense of self, began to develop.

For four weeks I learned to go without the comforts of the modern world, trading them in for the sort of skills that helped build a better me. I learned how to raise a tent in the rain after hiking for 10 hours, and the most efficient ways to pack one month of my life into a backpack. I learned to read the clouds, to recognize how to keep beehives in the ground from exploding, and on one occasion, how to prepare an emergency evacuation when you’re a 3 day hike from civilization. These skills taught me not only how to survive in the wilderness, but how to depend on myself for everyday survival, and the lessons that come when one is humbled by nature.

Point being, in traveling as an adult I’ve looked to replicate those experiences. So when I went to Iceland last year, I avoided most of the well-known tourist hot spots, like the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle.

This time around, I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and as you can imagine I ended up having a wildly different experience than I anticipated.

Stepping off the plane and into the warm, healing waters of the Blue Lagoon was an immensely relaxing way to deal with jet lag and the stress of international travel. Though expensive, the spot was in no way overrun with fannypacked tourists. In fact, I would consider my visit there to be a highlight of all my time spent in Iceland.

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Yesterday, our Icelandic friend and host/guide (pictured above on the right) drove us to see the highlights of the Golden Circle, including Iceland’s famous geyser (Geysir)…

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….and one of its biggest waterfalls, Gullfoss.IMG_2217

Both sites were absolutely breathtaking and showed off the majesty of Iceland’s unique landscape. And since the sun doesn’t go down, our late night visit ensured that crowds were nowhere to be found.

While I won’t concede my preference for authentic cultural experiences, I will admit that top tourist attractions have their place in the world of travel.

I chose not to illustrate the fruits of my admission, but a decoration from my current Reykjavík Airbnb instead.

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Go nuts for donuts

Iceland has surprisingly good donuts. In fact most of the food here is surprisingly good, considering their reputation for pickling everything. Below is a quick illustration of the donut I ate as part of a healthy breakfast. For dinner I managed to get the soup in a bread bowl that I’ve been craving since last September. Even though it’s 2am and the sun has yet to go down, I consider this day 1) over and 2) successful. Good night and good morning, world.

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The land of fire and ice

The first day traveling to and then being in Iceland was a great experiment in letting go. Over the years I’ve felt a greater need to control my surroundings, resulting in needless anxiety and as a result, added difficulty when traveling. This is a far cry from when I used to be a traveling pro as a teenager. So with a month long trip to Iceland in my midst, I vowed to return to the adventurer I once was, and try to let go of my expectations.

Michael and I arrived at SFO to find that the first flight of our journey would be delayed for so long that we would miss our second flight. Instead of freaking out, I decided to immediately ask the Delta Air help desk for, well, help. All of their flights in and out of JFK were delayed due to weather, but luckily they were able to put us on another flight that was supposed to have left already, but was delayed long enough for us to board. And board we did!

Once we landed at JFK it was a lengthy taxi until we reached the gate. I checked my watch (so old school, I know) and observed the minutes ticking away, reducing the time we had to get from where we were to the international terminal. Instead of convincing myself that in switching terminals we would have to go through a time-consuming security process again, I let go of those assumptions. Of course we arrived to the next gate with plenty of time, no extra security needed.

The second flight was a breeze, and we arrived in Iceland on time – with all of our stuff to boot! In choosing to not be a victim of anxious thoughts, I was able to relax and enjoy the journey, none of which I could control anyway, rather than get caught up in what ifs. And in relaxing, I was able to act on solutions to the problems that did arise rather than be overcome by them.

We celebrated our happy and safe arrival with an immediate stop at Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, a hot spring resort that lies between the airport and the capitol city, Reykjavík. Swimming in the resort’s hot mineral water was the perfect way to relax after all that travel.

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Later that evening I looked forward to eating a meal I had here last time: soup in a bread bowl. We showed up at Svarta Kaffi to discover that they had run out of bread! Oh no! So we went to the 2nd choice option, an awesome burger restaurant in the back of a bar. But they were closed! Oh no!

The dreaded things-outside-of-my-control had reared its ugly head, but instead of becoming upset at the changes, I went along with it. Before I knew it some random guy in the bar got up and walked us to a restaurant around the corner where we could get an even better burger, and he was totally on point. Even though I fell asleep during my meal (it was 11pm by that point), it was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.

Manual Rewind

Sometimes in order to move forward, we need to take a step back.

It’s easier said than done though, like most rewarding decisions. Pausing whatever it is that we’re doing in order to reevaluate the situation feels like quitting. Personally, I’m at a crossroads in my life where I can move forward with the way things are, or change my environment and focus on my priorities until I’m ready to figure out where to go next. The conclusion I’ve come to is that right now is an opportune moment for me to take a leave of absence from work to answer some of those questions.

With that said, the question came up of how I would use my time away from work. Since the moment I left Iceland last year I’ve felt those black sand beaches tugging at my heart, trying to pull me back. I felt at home in those other-worldly fjords, nestled in the conversations of people speaking an ancient language, telling tales of their unique brand of folklore. Iceland was a sensory overload for me, not just because of its natural beauty or surprisingly delicious food (not everything is pickled), but because I could tell from the moment my feet touched those lava beds that my heart was open.

Perhaps most importantly I recall Iceland as a place that can help facilitate growth in the 3 areas I want to focus on:

1) Unplug

The first condition I want to address is that of being “unplugged.” In 2012 I went to Israel and never used my phone or computer, as was the case with most of my fellow Birthright group members. I felt more present than I had in years, and as a result the friendships I made over those 10 days not only persisted through the years, but strengthened. I won’t be purchasing an international plan for my phone, and if I don’t deactivate Facebook, I hope at the very least that I can spend enough time away from my computer to lessen my addiction to it. I do plan on updating Instagram with pictures since Iceland is hella pretty, so follow me if a month without hearing from me is too much to bear.

2) Create

I see this leave of absence as an opportunity to focus on some of the projects that having a full time job leaves me too tired to address. My fiancé’s mom has generously equipped me with all the watercoloring supplies a novice sketchbooker could need, but for the most part they remain untouched due to lack of time and creative energy. My goal for this leave is to draw something at least once a day, like the below postcard I sketched after my last trip to Iceland.

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I also intend to write every day, even if it’s just this blog or snippets of fiction.

3) Move

Whether it’s going on a hike to look for a good drawing subject or swimming in Iceland’s curiously popular public pools, I want to move for at least 30 minutes every day. Moving is good for the ol’ bones, so I’m going to give my bod a little bit of love. At the very least, I won’t have the excuse of San Francisco’s hills to keep me from running.

In making this choice, I recognize that I’m replicating the same first-world white-person nonsense as that Eat Pray Love book. Stuff’s not working out at home, so I’m going to run away to a country that starts with an “i” to discover 3 qualities about myself and then come back to find Julia Roberts has stolen my likeness. I’m sure I’m not the first person to experience their quarter life crisis in this way, but it’s my privilege and I’m sticking to it!