I watched Carolina trot away from the car toward the bus stop in Höfn. It was early in the morning and we had just said our goodbyes. I was excited to learn that one of her stops on her 10-month journey will be New Zealand—one of my main destinations. Perhaps we’ll see each other in a few months on the other side of the world.

Fabrice and I got back to Route 1 to continue our drive around the Ring Road. Today we would have to travel the most distance in one day: 360 km to Lake Mývatn. I had heard there were amazing natural hot springs there—less expensive and less touristy than the famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik.

From Höfn to Mývatn

The evening fog had lingered overnight veiling the mountains to the sea. The sun’s rays pressed through its thickness like headlights through a dewy windshield. The effect was a misty, fantastical landscape where I could imagine creatures emerging from the mist in plumes and then disappearing again with the blink of an eye.

We stopped in a small port town called Djúpivogur for coffee with views of a picturesque harbor in the morning light.

Steering along the ledge next to the ocean, we pulled over to get a better look at a beach with an interesting rock formation. Gulls flew all around us as we gazed out across the seascape. We were lucky enough to spot whales playing out on the surface among the waves.

Back on the road, we alternated drivers several times over a few hours. We weaved back and forth along gravel roads through the eastern fjords, ate lunch and gassed up at a pit stop in Flótsdalshérað, and stopped to admire Jökulsá á Brú, a river than ran under a bridge where the Ring Road abruptly turns West.

Heading inland, we entered a vastly different landscape than anything I had seen previously. Grey clouds were hanging heavy in the sky. Fields of brown grasses and dark earth stretched out from the road to lifeless black mountains. “What is this, have we entered Mordor or something?” I chuckled. We kept getting whiffs of rotten-egg-scented air seeping through the car vents. Jokingly we accused each other of passing gas.

The scent got stronger as we continued on. In front of a steep mountain was a field of oranges, yellows, and greys that were steaming. Sulphur springs—so that’s the smell. This was Námafjall hverir. Getting out of the car at the site, the sulphur smell slammed into our noses and mouths as if being force fed eggs boiled in a septic tank.

There was the sound of the steaming mounds fizzing and whizzing in the air with a great force, the buzz and hum of flies everywhere, and the popping and glopping of wet sulphur. Are you thinking this all sounds terribly unpleasant? It sort of was, if not for the amazing landscape. With the cracked, dry orange pathways, bubbling grey pits, and steaming, rock-covered holes, we felt like we were walking around on another planet. It was beautiful and strangely alluring.

While Fabrice went back to the car—too put off by the smell—I hung around a bit more, in awe that this was the same country we had been traveling for the past three days.

The Attack of the Flies

Back in the car, we could see flies swarming around, attracted to the area’s sulphur smell. “Let’s get out of here.” Námafjall happens to be just east of Mývatn, our planned destination. We simply drove over the next mountain and could see the lakeside town ahead. At the stop sign in town, Fabrice pointed to the car’s side mirrors. Flies were still buzzing around them wildly, most likely left over from the sulphur fields.

A light drizzle had started so I was confident they would go away. A hostel was waiting for us just up the hill. For the first time, I asked the receptionist if we could see the beds before paying—for some reason I already was not feeling great about this place. Unsurprisingly, the beds did not impress us. On top of this, the lake town was less impressive overall than we had hoped. I was still relatively on board to stay there—determined to visit the natural hot springs—if only we didn’t experience what was coming next.

We emerged from the hostel lodgings and were suddenly attacked by a swarm of flies. They latched onto our faces, buzzed past our ears, and flew into our mouths as we gasped and yelled out in surprise at how aggressively they were landing on us. We broke into a run across the lot toward the car, swatting at our own faces like schizophrenics having a paranoid episode. “They’re relentless!” I yelled. Reaching the car, we smacked our faces several times before busting open the doors and shutting ourselves inside. We swatted wildly at the remaining ones that had made it inside with us and then shook and squirmed in disgust. “What is with this place?! Let’s get out of here!”

The Akureyri Backpackers hostel receptionist told us over the phone that they had availability for us to come a night earlier so we high-tailed it out of Mývatn. The flies, or midges as I learned later, continued to follow the car for several kilometers. Soon the rain poured down to wash away any stragglers and we were finally clear of the area in which they dwelled. Completely creeped out, we discussed how pleasant Iceland had been with basically no insects anywhere. Apparently Mývatn makes up for the whole country’s lack of insects. Later, we found out is Icelandic for flies. Apparently the locals wear head nets regularly to deal with them.

Pro-tip: You may gain a lot of insight into a new location simply by finding out beforehand what its name means in English!

Despite the disgusting experience being attacked by flies, we were laughing about it the whole journey to Akureyri. Every trip has its highs and its lows. I’m finding that it’s best to have a good sense of humor about the lows and simply move on. Sometimes the lows lead us to experiences we would otherwise miss, like what I was about to experience that night in Akureyri. The flies led us to being in the city for one of the best experiences yet.

The travelers of Akureyri

I woke from a nap to the sound of a guitar, harmonica, and group of people singing outside the front of the hostel. A man was singing backup vocals in a falsetto voice as a deeper voice expressed the lyrics, “Wondering where the music’s coming from / Not quite sure but you know it’s from someone!”

I sauntered downstairs, through the hostel bar, and out the front door to find Fabrice sitting with two girls from France, Lao and Cam, whom we had met back in Reykjavik four days prior. They were drinking beers with several others they had met and camped with the night before—Sam (England), Harold (Germany), Lee (Wales), and Sam and Will (Nova Scotia, Canada). Despite the smorgasbord of backgrounds and nationalities, we all got along and were there for the same reason: to have a good time and reflect on our travels in Iceland.

Under the night sky, I walked with them up a hill to “the cross”—the group’s acclaimed camping location from the night before. As we ascended, I thought about how we had spent the evening cracking jokes about each other’s nationalities and referring to each other by our home country or region (“Pass me that beer, New York!”). But, in subtle ways, we were mostly erasing borders by addressing stereotypes head on and then allowing them to fade away through finding common ground and by introducing a whole lot of humor. While political correctness is a major construct of Western culture (and a large focus of my graduate degree), these rules or norms went out the window in this context.

“People think the Welsh are sheep-shaggers, but really we were just a bunch of sheep thieves!” Lee exclaimed after sarcastic accusations from across the table about an age-old stereotype. We shared stories and inquired frankly about histories and opinions as if we didn’t actually believe the stereotypes we alluded to in the first place.

They were addressed head on, as if set to air dry on a laundry line and then left there, forgotten, to blow away in the wind. Instead, conversations were replaced naturally with slamming glasses—“Skál!” (Cheers in Icelandic), singing along to newly written lyrics, and just admiring the novelty of each other’s company, unique personalities, and contributions to the conversation and fun.

On a patch of lawn beside a monastery overlooking the city below, I helped my new friends of various nations set up camp for the night. The spot was situated in front of a cemetery next to a giant, fluorescent cross—merely a source of light for our group of wanderers.

I had a cozy hostel waiting for me back down the hill, but I stayed for most of the night sitting on the hillside getting to know them all better, drinking, laughing, singing, and gazing out into the night. Lao recorded Will and the rest of the group singing a song from earlier in the night—a song that would become a sort of theme song of Iceland and our time spent together as a group.

Heading back to the hostel, the nearly full moon followed me through the clouds in the night sky. The streets were empty apart from my shadow reflecting on the buildings in the street lights. This night emphasized further how much travel is not just about the places you go—but the people you meet when you get there. Stereotypes created by imaginary borders between “us” and “them” can prevent everyone from meeting and learning from each other.

But in the context of travel, these fade into the background. People may be different from you, but those differences quickly become irrelevant when we simply listen to each other, learn to understand each other, and then laugh and let those differences fly off the line into the breeze.