Travel Blog: Lonely Iceland

View of Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja

A flurry of purple flight attendants descended the stairs, followed by two pilots wearing ties the same color as the suits of the attendants. Outside sat the WOW jet, painted in the same bright purple color. I sat alone at the gate, halfheartedly reading my Kindle, wholeheartedly getting distracted by the lilac and lavendar colors popping up on all sides.

Saying bye to my parents and dog

I was waiting for boarding to begin for my 10:30pm flight to Keflavik, the international airport in Iceland. I’d said goodbye to my family an hour earlier, my dad pushing our dog through the airport in a luggage stroller because he (the dog, not my dad) had pooped on the carpet out of fear earlier. My parents watched me walk through security, their eyes never once leaving my back. I periodically turned to check if they were still watching, and smiled and waved whenever I saw them. Their worried faces would break into smiles and they’d lift their hands in tiny waves. My mom picked up Yota and waved his little paw at me, a proper doggy’s goodbye.

Now I sat alone at the gate, waiting for my flight. I was prepared to spend the majority of the next 48 hours either in an airport or on a plane on my way to Berlin for my fall semester abroad. However, between the hop from SFO to TXL, I was taking a stop off at Iceland for a day, to see what the frigid Nordic country could offer me.

After an hour delay and 8 more hours of flight, I landed in Keflavik. Getting off the plane, we were shuffled into a bus that took us from the airplane to the airport. The moment I stepped off the plane, I was hit with a gust of wind and a light drizzle of constant rain. I zipped up my jacket and put my hood on, then crowded in the bus packed against wet strangers.

The airport itself was crowded and busy when I arrived. Signs in Icelandic with English underneath pointed in a multitude of directions. People were milling about in all directions, or sitting on the floor with their luggage surrounding them. Everything was brightly colored and there didn’t seem to be much of an understandable layout to the airport.

I somehow managed to go through customs and pick up my baggage after buying a few sandwiches to tide me over for the rest of the day. I spent about an hour making my way to luggage storage, after being misdirected by a few people I talked to, none of which seemed to know exactly where the storage was. I ended up following a stranger headed to the same destination, pushing my two heavy suitcases in front of me.

Finally, I’d made my way into a taxi on my way to the Airbnb I would be staying at. During the short (but expensive) ride over, I looked out across the landscape. It was barren — rocky, or rocky with moss — and I didn’t seem to see any other people on the road. Very few cars drove on the two-lane road leading out of the airport. Combined with the grey skies and the cold weather, I began to feel very lonely, a feeling that would not completely go away the rest of my stay in Iceland.

The room I stayed in

My airbnb was a sparsely decorated apartment with two rooms. Although there was a lock box outside containing the key, it was unlocked. When I entered the complex, I could see that the doors were wide open. It seemed like, at least in this area, the neighborhood was so safe (or so sparsely populated) that there wasn’t any worry of break-ins or crime.

The room I was staying in had 6 bunk beds which would be shared with strangers. I was greeted by two women and a large, friendly dog. We didn’t exchange many words before I placed my stuff down on a bunk and sat on the couch with a cup of tea and my Kindle. I didn’t have plans for the rest of the day, and was prepared to spend a good amount of time alone until I would go to bed early.

A couple hours after I’d settled in, another guest entered who would be staying in the same room as me. I was happy to learn that she was close to my age and from Canada. We talked for about an hour — usually, I’m not very talkative with strangers, but I hadn’t had a substantial conversation with anyone for a long time now, and I was craving some human interaction.

The sun started to set around 9 pm, throwing the apartment into a dark, chilly silence. Around 11, the exhaustion started to really get to me and I headed to bed early. I woke up again sometime in the middle of the night to notice that the rest of the beds had been filled with other strangers who’d entered late. I wasn’t able to easily fall asleep again, and I slept on and off until I had to get up at 7 am to get ready for the next day.

By 7:30 I was waiting in the living room for the cab I had pre-ordered yesterday. I had no idea if it would actually arrive on time. I’d sent a very short e-mail to the taxi service asking for a cab, and they’d sent me back an even shorter informal confirmation. I kept worriedly glancing out the window, looking for a taxi to arrive in the area.

Luckily, the taxi came on time — in fact, it even came earlier. One short and silent taxi ride later I was in the airport. By 8, I was waiting in line for the shuttle that would take me to the Blue Lagoon, a man-made geothermal spa that was incredibly popular with tourists.

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In line, I met an older couple who was also from America, and seemed to have done a lot of travelling around Europe. Both of them were extremely friendly and offered a lot of travel advice for both Iceland and Berlin, which I was really thankful for. They explained that this was their second time to Iceland (and their 3rd or 4th time to the Lagoon!). One of them gave me the description of Iceland’s landscape that I had been trying to nail for the last day: lunar. They were right — much of what I had seen so far felt like what I would imagine the moon’s surface to be like.

The shuttle ride to the Lagoon took no more than 30 minutes, past black lava rock covered in a spongy, thick green moss. One of the men from the couple I’d met explained that this area was optimal for this type of moss to grow — it took nutrients from the rock and, of course, water from the area and surrounding atmosphere.

The 10 or so people from the shuttle got off at the Lagoon stop, the majority of them with a lot of luggage in hand, and made our way to the line. Although early, the inside was already bustling with tourists trying to book tickets or waiting to enter. I upgraded my package to the Comfort package, which came with a towel to rent, a free drink, and two types of face masks I could do in the spa.

Before entering, everyone had to take showers and be sure to put a heavy amount of conditioner in the hair. I’d read beforehand that the Lagoon water would dry out and damage your hair if not taken care of properly, so I put my hair up in a bun to keep it out of the water. After changing into a swimsuit and hanging my towel on a hook, I left the heated building to scurry quickly through the wind and the drizzle of rain into the large heated spa.

The water was a more than welcome heat from the cold of the air outside. The whole spa was a bright, unnatural blue, and the water was somewhat murky. It was surrounded on all sides by the black lava rock that covered the landscape on the way over. I could see hills and mountains in the distance, with plants I didn’t recognize dotting the sides.

There were already many people milling about in the spa, but it didn’t feel crowded at any point. There were areas where you could sit, cordoned off into smaller sections so groups could relax together. On the right was an in-water bar where you could order drinks, and on the opposite side, another in-water booth area that had the free mud mask and the algae mask that came with my upgraded package. I did the mud mask, which was a white goop with some kind of exfoliant. People of all ages were slathering them on their faces and hands, washing them off after a couple minutes in the water.

I spent around 3 hours in the Blue Lagoon, going in and out of the water periodically, exploring the saunas, drinks bar, and doing more masks. The weather cleared up quite a bit towards the afternoon, to the point that it got too hot in the water and I had to step out and stand in the cold for a bit.

After I’d cleaned up and changed back into normal clothes I tried to step out to take more pictures of the lagoon, but unfortunately the swimming area was only for people in swimsuits. I took a few pictures of the surrounding landscape, which had geothermal pools (natural or unnatural) dotted throughout the black landscape.

The bus arrived after I’d finished eating the sandwich I brought with me. This was maybe the 3rd airport sandwich I’d had since landing — I was getting tired of stale, cold food. However, I wasn’t prepared to drop $100+ on the Lava Restaurant inside the Lagoon.

The ride to Reykjavik took another hour. I showed the driver where I was headed — Austurvollur square — and waited for the driver to announce the stop. We drove through the downtown area of the city and the shopping street before reaching my location. I saw more people milling about here, mostly tourists, but the city was still very empty compared to anywhere back home. It was drizzling on and off, and the weather had gotten a little colder.

I followed maps to reach the square, finding the statue that the free walking tour I was going to go on was going to meet at. The park itself was much smaller than I thought it would be based on the maps — It was basically just a statue with a lawn. I had about 2 hours to kill before the tour group met up.

Walking past the park and down a block or two, I reached a lake surrounded with a tiny island of grass in the middle. This was Tjornin, another spot on my to-see list.

It was also much smaller than I thought it would be. I expected there to be fish markets or stores surrounding it, but I could really only see residential areas and churches. Crossing a short bridge, I reached a tourist information center. It was pretty empty, but warm. I wandered around for a bit, then asked for a map and directions to Laugavegur, the shopping street. The girl showed me on the map, but once I left the building, I had no idea how to navigate. I ended up wandering around a few more areas that looked touristy, but it was still generally empty. I checked out a couple of gift stores to see if I could buy mittens or additional warmth. After some time, the rain seemed to come down harder so I ducked into a cute little cafe called “The Laundromat”, clearly catered to American tourists.

Inside, I ordered tea and a slice of carrot cake — although it was just a small snack, it ended up totaling the price of a small meal. However, the tea was warm and sweet, and the carrot cake was filling, so I figured it was worth my time and krona. I stayed there for about an hour and a half. I was working really slowly through my tea and cake. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to go back out and explore. I was already tired of the cold, and I couldn’t figure out if I had already gotten to the shopping street. If I had, it didn’t seem interesting enough to spend too much time there, in which case there weren’t many more areas I wanted to see. Although I’d passed a lot of restaurants, I hadn’t been hungry enough to try them. So I stayed in the cafe for a long, long time, listening to the bustle of the people around me, slowly sipping on my tea.

By the time I had gotten up, the green tea had turned bitter and the whipped cream had all but melted. I paid and made my way back to the square, to meet with the tour group.

Some people were already there by the time I arrived. The tour guide was a tall blond man with a bright yellow rain jacket. He walked from group to group, checking people off and making light conversation. He asked everyone where they were from. I heard a surprising amount from Germany, and only a few others were from the US. I told him I was only here for a day and he looked jokingly disappointed.

After separating us into two groups, we began our tour. We stood underneath the statue, and the guide talked a little about the history of Iceland. He told us the buildings opposite us were actually the oldest Protestant church of the area and the Parliament. Without his explanation, I would’ve totally missed the Parliamanet — it had no security outside, and not even a flag hung from the top.

Church on the left, Parliament on the right

We walked out of the park and through another square, where he described the graves that had been found right beneath our feet. He pointed out a large tree behind us, explaining that it was actually Iceland’s oldest tree — they didn’t have many trees on this island, so they made the most of what they had. He interspersed the history with funny anecdotes about himself and the Icelandic people. We were given some time to walk around the square and take pictures, even though the square was as small, if not smaller, than Austurvollur.

Cute little cafe where we stopped to look around

The tour took a total of 2 hours, and we made our way through much of the most important areas of the city. The entire tour could not have been much more than a 3 mile radius from Austurvollur square, but we covered the majority of Reykjavik’s touristy areas. I was grateful that he could provide context to the many statues in the area, and buildings that I would never have pinpointed as important buildings otherwise.

We got a glimpse of Hallgrimskirja, the large church in the middle of Reykjavik that could provide a 360 degree view of the city. We stopped here and talked a bit about the building near it that formerly housed Iceland’s only prison. The guide explained that even max security in Icelandic prisons was very little compared to prisons in the US — prisoners were allowed to climb over the gate to retrieve their soccer ball if they kicked it over during games. However, they would always climb back in. He explained that even if they escaped, there’d be nowhere to go. Iceland was an island and crimes that sent people to jail were highly publicized, so a criminal couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized.

The tour ended back at the city center building, where the guide thanked us all for coming and reminded us that the walking tour ran on donations alone. He passed around a box of Icelandic licorice for each of us to try some, then left his backpack at the front for donations and walked to the back to field any questions we might’ve had. After dropping some money into his bag, I left the building again.

View from the city center — all roads lead here
A more residential area with Icelandic architecture

I headed towards Hallgrimskirja, the big church. Although we’d already taken a path there earlier, I couldn’t remember it so used Google Maps to navigate there. It took me through a more residential area. Here there were hardly any tourists, and consequently I only saw one or two people while walking the streets. It began to feel eerie, so I ducked back to a main street as quickly as I could.

I reached the area of the church — it loomed above me. I craned my head back, and snapped a quick picture of the statue in front, trying to capture how tall the building was in one picture.

Inside, the pews were open and it was a welcome warmth from the cold outside. It cost about $9 USD to go up the elevator that would take us to the top.

I rode it up and emerged to an area with windows on all sides. All of them had vertical bars going up and down them, and a small step stool so people could step up and take a look at the city below. I circled the area, taking pictures of the whole city from every angle. Reykjavik looked tiny from up here — there weren’t really any huge buildings besides the one I was currently in. Instead, the landscape was dotted with squat, colorful houses, leading up to a harbor that stretched beyond the horizon.

View of the harbor
View down the main street, including the statue in the front

After spending a couple minutes there, I rode the elevator back down, concluding that the $9 to go up was definitely overpriced.

I left the church and realized I only had about an hour and a half until the shuttle I’d booked to take me back to the airport would arrive. I quickly ducked into the first restaurant I saw to eat a meal, naively without glancing at a menu with prices first. It was a small restaurant with a homey feel to it. When the waitress told me to hang my jacket up in their coat area, I knew my wallet was about to take a hit.

She seated me at a table and handed me a menu, which I hesitantly opened. I saw all the entrees were at least $50 USD, and immediately regretted my decision. However, I’d already been seated, so I went ahead and ordered anyway. Instead of getting an entree, I got a soup and appetizer, figuring I could eat a little less food and not have to go over all the krona I had left.

I was debating between puffin and whale meat for my appetizer, having heard good things about both. I ended up going for the whale meat, hoping for some kind of warm steak, because I’d had cold food for so long.

The waitress brought some delicious warm bread before the rest of my food, which I devoured. An old couple was seated next to me in this time, and I heard them exclaim over the prices as well.

Fancy whale meat and mushroom soup

After some time, my soup and whale meat arrived. The appetizer was much smaller than I expected, considering it was also about $20 USD. To my extreme disappointment, the meat was cold. And unfortunately, I don’t think whale meat is for me. It didn’t taste particularly exotic — somewhat close to beef, actually- and didn’t go particularly well with the toppings it had been served with. I forced myself to finish the meat and drank most of the mushroom soup, which had too strong of a mushroom flavor for me to really enjoy. My favorite part of that meal, sadly, was the free bread.

I paid quickly and left with a small complimentary chocolate, grabbing my jacket and stepping back into the cold. I had about 30 minutes before I had to leave, so I walked at a brisk pace to the station, which was only about 10 minutes away. It took me down a more main driving road, through some more residential neighborhoods. I saw maybe 1 or 2 people walking around the whole time. The eeriness settled back in.

I made it to the terminal without incident and waited for the bus to arrive. The trip would take another hour, for which I was grateful. The moment I got on the bus, I knocked out for the rest of the ride. I was exhausted.

I got back to the airport, got back on the luggage shuttle, and got my luggage with relatively little difficulty. I had a couple of hours before my flight would take off, which I spent sitting in line, waiting for check-in to open up. I heard the lady behind me in line talk about her spending 2 weeks camping in the Icelandic cold. I couldn’t imagine how crazy she must’ve been to do that.

After I’d checked in all my luggage, gotten to the right gate, boarded, and sat in my seat, I finally relaxed. I was leaving the cold — I’d be with people again soon! — and I’d survived my journey. I had a 3 hour flight ahead of me, and then I’d land in Berlin at 6 am. Hoping to get some sleep in, I sank low in my seat, ending my trip to Iceland, the lonely island.

Would I go back? Honestly, probably not back to Reykjavik. I felt that in the one day I had seen enough of the city. However, if I were prompted to go in the summer, when I knew the weather would be for sure a little better, I would consider going again. I didn’t get to see the Northern lights or many of the nature-y parts of the country that Iceland was famous for, like the Golden Circle or the beautiful waterfalls along the coast. I would be hard-pressed to ever go in the winter. To sum up my trip: Iceland is cold, beautiful, lonely, unique, alien. I’m grateful for the experience, but at the same time, glad that it’s over.

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Aside: this ended up being way longer than I expected it to be! Even though it was just one day, I wanted to capture everything I felt and saw. If you’ve made it this far, thank you.