A Vagabond in Iceland
“What’s a hitch-hiker doing here in winter?” Those where the first words, laced with the guttural archaic Icelandic accent, my ears heard. Just minutes before, I barely slipped out the front entranceway of the Keflavik International Airport, into the still dark, (at 10am!) bitter cold December air. A voice over the terminal intercom echoed into the parking lot as I briskly hurried out toward the road leading to the capital city of Reykjavik, 30 miles away. “Brenton Netz, your plane is departing, Brenton Netz…”
My original destination, and ticket itinerary was still hundreds of miles away across the North Atlantic to Luxembourg. The beautiful, middle-aged Icelandic woman sitting next to me on the plane filled my head with visions of the Aurora Borealis and midnight dance parties in the streets of Reykjavik. Our flight hooked the southern tip of Greenland, floating far below like a giant, ice covered ghost ship. “Continental Europe is boring, stay in Iceland, it’s wonderful.” Little did she know that she was speaking to a very impressionable 24 year old, looking for something, anything, and at that point had nothing to lose.
Lucky for me, I packed ultra-light for this adventure, leaving no need to check baggage. A short layover in Iceland to change planes was the only chance I needed to grab my backpack, and put the slip on a lax pre-911 airport security guard.
The first car to roll past my freezing, outstretched thumb stopped, completing my clean getaway before the stewardess on the other end of that intercom could figure out it wasn’t a wrong head-count. Not until after I climbed in the passenger seat, did I notice I was sitting in a taxi. “I don’t really have the money for a taxi, sir, that’s why I was hitch-hiking”. He explained to me in his best English that he just got off and was heading home, and the ride was on him.
I dodged questions about where I was staying; the curious Icelandic taxi driver’s inquiries seemed to be limited not by his curiousness, but by his vocabulary. In truth I had no idea where I was heading, two weeks before I departed from my hometown in the Sierras of Northern California, a thousand bucks in my pocket and a cardboard sign saying “East”. Through a series of rides with truckers and ranchers and ex-hippies, (and ten bucks! But that’s another story) I made it to New York City. Running out of North American landmass, I spent half my roll on a ticket to Europe. I didn’t plan to be rolling into one of the northernmost and most expensive capital cities in the world (in winter!), with five hundred dollars in my boot.
The sun was doing its best to make an appearance in the late morning sky, by this point, no more than 10 degrees off the horizon and raising the temperature to around 30 degrees Celsius. I spent the rest of the morning walking around downtown Reykjavik, looking in the windows of all the shops, closed on Sunday.
I found a pastries café open and ducked in for a treat. The young woman behind the counter stunned me with her angelic beauty, nearly knocking me off my feet. Any other place in the world, modeling agencies would be throwing six digit contracts at her, men would be tripping over their own knuckles trying to catch her eye, but here in Iceland, land of near legendary aesthetics, she’s working behind the counter of some neighborhood café, her stunning beauty blending into the background like something in our lives so familiar, we no longer see it. I pointed to some chocolate filled puff pastry, and would have changed my mind after finding out it cost US$4, but male pride runs deep in the presence of a beautiful woman.
As long as I stayed walking around, the cold wasn’t that bad, I still had no idea where I was going to sleep that night (which at that time of year, started around 4pm). Thinking back in hindsight, I was incredibly lucky to have made all the right turns, down snow covered streets and intermittent sidewalks to the abandoned house perched next to the bay, which was to become my home for the next three weeks. A saying I heard years ago comes to mind, “God looks after fools and children.” At age 24, I could no longer claim to be a child, leaving only one other explanation for my good fortune.
It was a white, three story wooden structure, the windows had been boarded up and its dilapidated state of repair betrayed an uninhabited nature. I pried open one of the boards in the trashed kitchen and crawled inside. It was just as cold inside as out, mattresses, cans and bottles were strung all over the floor making me think I wasn’t the only vagabond to have visited Iceland. Exploring the ground floor, I spotted a steep, narrow stairway heading up, it reminded me of an abandoned old farmhouse, like the ones I had explored in Wisconsin years ago.
The upstairs was were the bedrooms used to be. Someone had recently stayed there, leaving candles and old army sleeping bags lying on the floor. The view from the bedroom window looked out over the icy bay with the snowcapped mountains beyond. The wind was blowing in white-capped swells and the sky was ominous with dark clouds. I knew at that moment, that room was a perfect home base for exploring Reykjavik.
I thoroughly searched the house, opening all the drawers and closets, finding old clothes, an ironing board, trash of every sort and an old broom with a broken handle. I used it to sweep up all the junk and dirt in my new bay view suite, and then beat all the Army bags against the wall, which were in surprisingly good shape. I laid them out like one big rug, then blew up my portable hiking mat and laid my own sub-arctic sleeping bag on top of all that. Someone had a good idea with the candles; I made a note to find a store that sold them, good for heat and reading light.
Every once in awhile, I would peak out the other window, overlooking the street, quasi-paranoid that I was going to be run out of there at any moment by the house’s rightful owner. I could only suspect the fate of this place come spring thaw, the location was no more than a 15 minute walk to the city center, yet sitting off by itself at the edge of some type of industrial area. Staring out the window I imagined the brightly painted suburban homes right across the road not so close, creeping a little closer every year, the aging occupant cursing the Icelandic version of sprawl.
There was barely a soul to be found that first day, and I decided to just stay low and hope for the best. After creating my comfy little home, I stuffed my backpack in the closet, with a note saying, “Please don’t steal this, there’s nothing of real value and I need everything in it, thank you.” I quietly pulled the nails out of the board over the window I was to use for my stealthily entrance, then placed it back as I left.
Free from the extra fifty pounds of my pack, I bounded around downtown Reykjavik looking at all the public art and shop windows full of handmade Icelandic wool sweaters and mythical, wild haired troll dolls. None of the signs were in English, which made navigating a challenge, but I loved the idea of being in an environment not catering exclusively to my tourist dollars (or lack of dollars in my case).
Reykjavik, and Iceland in general is known for its abundance of natural hot springs; this being one of the fringe benefits to living on an active volcano. All over the city are public bathhouses built right over the top of a giant crack where steaming water heated by the earth’s core bubbles up. I bought a one-day pass costing around US$3 and spent the next three hours lounging around a half dozen different pools, all varying in temperature. Some were so hot I couldn’t get farther than my knees; others were lukewarm bathwater with the musky smell of natural sulfur steaming off the surface.
One of the rules I managed to translate from a sign in the entranceway was anyone visiting the pools must shower first for hygiene reasons. Off to the side were some locker rooms like one might find at a gym; there were around twenty other men, most with blond hair and blue eyes, all in various stages of drying off or getting dressed. It was strangely quiet, with perhaps someone peaking softly in Icelandic, like you might hear in a library. As I pulled off all my layers I could feel their eyes on me, but when I looked up or tried to make eye contact, all the men would quickly turn away.
I wrapped a towel around me and walked into the open shower room. It was the first shower I had had in a week, between hitchhiking across the U.S. and straightening up my new room, I was plenty ripe. I watched the streams of dirt and funk cascade off me, I still remember how different the water was in Iceland, both in taste and feel. The best way I can describe it is, it’s what water “should” taste like, and by that I mean it doesn’t really taste like anything, its just pure, crisp and elemental. The feel of it is also different; I imagine it to be whatever “hard water” isn’t, leaving nothing on your skin.
Finally pulling myself away from the limitless hot water blasting from the showerhead, heated directly from the center of the earth in all its glory, I returned to the bench were my clothes were. The same men that were staring at me before, where still standing around, quietly talking to each other in Icelandic, and looking away when I returned a glance. An uneasy feeling of anxiety was brewing inside, “Is Iceland a nation of homosexuals? Am I unknowingly in a gay hot springs?” For all I knew, that cryptic sign posted outside, written in Icelandic, containing letters that don’t even exist in the English alphabet might say, “Welcome to Iceland’s largest gay meeting place”.
Now feeling hurried to get out of the locker room and into the pools, I shuffled past them with my head down; in the pool area I dipped my toes in, testing for the perfect temperature until I found the ideal spot to rest my road weary body.
As I relaxed into a built-in submerged bench, I saw my locker room admirers come out and find their place in the pools. One of them slid in across from me, averting his eyes in what now I was interpreting as “very shifty” behaviour.
Having had enough of this uncomfortable vibe that was ruining the most relaxing hot spring experience I’d ever had, I looked him right in the eye and said, “Can I help you guys with something?” The man closest to me looked up, a sort of embarrassed, shocked expression on his face, smiled a little and labored in heavily accented English for a reply, “Forgive our rudeness, we rarely see a circumcised penis around here.”
Now I felt like a real heel. “That was what all the staring was about?” I thought to myself. I felt like a full-blown asshole. All I could think to say was, “Oh, okay.” Not much else I could do really, aside from putting my member on display for all to marvel at.
Let me attempt a futile explanation of one of the most unrivaled experiences I’ve ever come across in all my travels. In a perfect world, every human being would have located in their backyard, a crack in the earth from where water would bubble, filling a natural basin formed of sandstone or granite, glistening pea gravel littering the bottom where toes would instinctively burrow in infantile playfulness. In this perfect world, worries would seep from our pores; dissolve into the water, returning to the center of the earth. World strife would be obsolete, these daily healing waters would perform the mystical equivalent of a rebirth, and problems would work themselves out, or never take root in the first place.
Reborn was how I felt after that afternoon lounging around an Icelandic hot spring. I thought it a good idea to establish Iceland as some type of world mediator where heads of state could bring their political grumblings, submerge together into one of these pools and end up burying the hatchet. There was indeed more than Icelandic men there that day. I watched what seemed to be my own private Miss Universe competition (bathing suit segment) – the contestants would make their way out of the women’s locker room, each more stunning than the last. At that point I couldn’t tell whether my own feelings of unworthiness was the reason I couldn’t bring myself to strike up a conversation, or a recognizing form of eye and body language which signaled to my intuitive self, “don’t bother buddy”. Nevertheless, I took the path of least rejection and found contentment in observation.
Dragging myself out of there only after my skin began to take on the appearance of a prune, all I could think to mumble under my breath was, “I could really get used to this.”
As the sun disappeared behind the hills across the bay, I slowly wandered back to my place with a view, grooving on my tingling body, still warm from the hot spring. Though it was a Sunday evening, I was still determined to find some sort of social atmosphere; I donned my best clothes from my limited backpack wardrobe, which consisted of a shirt with buttons and a semi-clean pair of jeans.
These were pre-tourist discovery days in Iceland; not more than a year after my visit, Outside magazine ran a cover story on Iceland, blowing the top off the best kept secret left in world. Professional pictures depicted scenes of uncrowned cobblestone streets spotted with cafes and bookstores. Wool sweater wearing Goddesses with wind blown, blond hair and eyes as blue as the surrounding North Sea were caught by the camera’s seductive lenses. Some laughing joyfully while others armed with sultry pouts as if to say, “I’m bored and lonely up here on the edge of the Arctic, come to me.” The 22 days I spent in Reykjavik, not once did I meet a fellow American, and to tell the truth, I welcomed my oddball status and did not miss them.
A bar was my first choice that night, but after doing the mental exchange rate in my head, the least expensive beer on tap was US$6 (yes, I said one beer). I read later that alcohol in the form of beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989, explaining partially it’s ridiculous street value. Down the block I found something more my speed, a cozy little coffeehouse with big frosted windows peeking out over the snowy alleyway. I pointed to a small mug and said “coffee”, which as far as I know, is a universal word in the Western world. Yet another Goddess was running the counter, seriously making me consider a change of citizenship. Three dollars poorer but manned with a material reason to lounge around in public for a while, I grabbed a table by the window.
A book I finished reading days before hitting the road had a great way of describing the different emotional connections people make with their surrounding environment. The author lived, by choice, in a region of North America known for its vast amount of yearly snowfall. I say by choice because he happened to be rather wealthy, and could more or less live where he wanted, but instead chose to have a home built on a small rural lake in Western Quebec where “they haven’t yet figured out how to make warm snow”. He wrote in great detail about how the snow surrounding his house in winter was like his “Soulscape”, and couldn’t wait for winter to make its way back so he could slip on his snowshoes or cross-country skis and traverse the labyrinth of trails surrounding his house.
This especially struck a cord with me because that particular subject, the subject of one’s “soulscape” was a major source of contingency between the girl I had been involved with up until the time I left on this “crazy, irresponsible ramble”. Her soulscape was warm, dry and mild. She hadn’t enough fat on her to pinch an inch, leaving her shivering whenever the temperature dropped below 60 degrees. I on the other hand, for reasons not totally clear even to myself, had developed a love and attraction to cold, snowy (dare I say cozy) habitats even though I was born and bred a California boy.
There is something about trampling around outside in the dampening snow, staying moving as much for the heat it generates than the forward motion. Then when enough of that is had, coming in from the cold, removing all the layers and warming your bones by the fire.
That scenario had made my girlfriend shiver just thinking about it, and any future plans always had those dark clouds lingering over them.
So there I was, sitting in a cozy little coffeehouse in Reykjavik, snow lightly falling past the street lamp outside, in a sense, getting what I wanted and feeling right at home in my frigid soulscape. I wondered if she was doing the same, perhaps on a beach in San Diego, where she was thinking of planting her soul.
Town was quiet, as I expected on a Sunday evening. Walking around the quiet streets hinted of good times to be had later in the week, with clubs and bars named with words I couldn’t begin to translate. I would cup my hand over my eyes and peek through the frosty windows where colored track lighting hung from the ceilings and mirror backed bars stocked with booze waited for Friday to roll back around.
I wandered back to my place on the bay, with my subzero-sleeping bag waiting for me. Unable to find a store open that sold candles, I pulled out my headlamp and read more of the travel book that helped inspire me to take this chance on a random adventure, Vagabonding in Europe and North Africa by Ed Buryn. A little known, underground travel classic filled with so much truth and unconventional wisdom it never really had a chance to become a best seller.
“Did you know the word ‘travel’ comes from an old Latin root meaning instrument of torture? And it’s no wonder… travel use to be an ordeal. The traveler forsook the comforts and safety of home for the perilous road. He learned to fend off everything from bandits to dragons. He faced a world without confirmed reservations. But dig this: The survivors loved it, reporting how high they got, how good they felt to be discovering fabled lands and living adventures that enriched them for all their days thereafter.
In recent times all this has changed. The dragons are gone and the bandits are confirming the reservations. The fabled lands have faded, and the ‘adventure’ comes in a plastic package. The price tag is the memorable part of the trip. Ech!! The thrust of this book is that you can get back the adventure by forsaking some of the comforts, you can discover not only Europe but something about yourself in the process and you can afford to do it without mortgaging your mother.”
It was safe to say that my present travel style and budget wasn’t going to let a demoralizing little thing like discomfort become a problem. All things considered, I had not only everything I needed in that abandoned room, in that abandoned house, I had everything I wanted. At that moment, I wasn’t sure a million dollars would make me any more or any less happy; I was warm, fed and full of optimistic hope. My mind didn’t have enough time or energy to partake in its usual endless worry about silly insecurities or time schedules. I drifted off to sleep with the occasional sound of a loose roof shingle flapping against the wind. My last thoughts being, this is all too surreal, being here, in Iceland without a clue as to where I’ll end up next.
If you don’t know where your going, you’re there