I squinted into the morning sun and watched puffy clouds float by outside the plane window. My insides leapt as the clouds parted revealing Iceland: a treeless green mass jutting into the sparkling sea.
The pilot switched from speaking Norwegian to English announcing our descent into Keflavik International Airport in Reykjavik.
After landing, I fastened my backpack buckles around my waist and raised my chin ready for whatever adventures laid ahead. I grabbed a local SIM card at the airport Duty Free, bought a bus ticket, and headed outside to the bus stop.
A young Icelandic Excursions bus driver wearing reflective aviators took my bag and told me he could drop me at the Mjódd station. We shared an exchange over our matching sunglasses as I boarded. I said, “Nice sunglasses!” He laughed, “You, too!”
The land was plain and flat along the sides of the road on the way to Breiðholt in eastern Reyjavik where I would meet my Icelandic host named Einar. Lining the horizon in the distance were mountains rolling and shooting upwards trying to reach the sunlight glistening off the clouds—a sight that promised spectacular views to come.
I wondered to myself how I would get to see all of Iceland during my stay. The country has lots to see and I had read that you need a vehicle to truly experience it.
Upon arrival at Einar’s place, we sat and chatted about plans for my stay. He wanted to take me to a few places nearby. We walked to what I like to call Bunny Hill—a grassy slope dotted with holes dug by nearly 100 rabbits hopping about freely. They allow you to get very close and even feed them as one family was doing when we were there. Einar said they are wild but a man living on the hill feeds them regularly.
After I finished squealing over how adorable they were, we continued our walk along a path by a stream. Along the way, Einar pointed to bushes with berries we could pick and eat. A large waterfall dumped into the stream further uphill, and a nature preserve offered paths for wanderers and cyclists to wind through.
After dark, Einar took me to “The Pool” which is much more than just a singular pool. The Pool has heated pools, hot tubs, a sauna, a steam room, and water slides. You shower with your gender before entering and when you leave there is a dryer that completely dries your suit for you (it's amazing!!). There are multiple pools such as this one all over Iceland and they stay open to the public all year round.
Einar said that on a clear night you can see the northern lights, but his favorite time to visit the pool is when the weather is bad. Imagine being totally warm and comfortable lounging in a hot tub with frozen snowflakes falling all around you. Magical.
The next day, a Swedish woman, Carolina, stayed over. Iceland was her first stop, too, on a trip around the world over the next 10 months. Einar likes to host lots of people and show them around his country. In fact, he has hosted over 350 people in the last 3 years via the travel networking website, couchsurfers.org, so having both Carolina and I there was typical for him.
One of the great things about what Einar does (and what couchsurfing.org is all about) is offer accommodation to a community of travelers who are interested in a cultural exchange, not a monetary one. Einar found a passion for being a couchsurfing host. He believes he personally benefits from the exchange by having the opportunity to get to know new people and their backgrounds, and feeling as though he is giving something back to the world by giving people the opportunity to enjoy his country without the cost of a bed.
With reviews/references similar to Yelp.com, this is one of the safest ways to travel—perhaps even more than staying in a hostel where there are many people all of whom you do not have a profile and list of references for which to browse.
The three of us—Carolina, Einar, and I—went into Reykjavik for the day. We walked in the on and off rain (a typical weather pattern for Iceland) and browsed some shops. Then we rode the elevator to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja Church to see 360-degree views of the city. Iceland was settled by Christians and is homogeneously Christian. Most towns in Iceland have a beautiful church, but none quite like this one. This church boasted an enormous organ and other beautiful architecture worth checking out in addition to going to the top of the spire for the views.
Nearby the church was a sculpture garden behind a museum dedicated to the artist Einar Jónsson (Einar said his name is very common in Iceland). Einar told us how Einar Jónsson convinced the Icelandic government to display his art for public consumption. Iceland rejected his work at first, so he asked the Canadian government if they would display it.
When Canada accepted without reservation, Iceland suddenly wanted Einar Jónsson’s work to stay in Iceland. Quite the manipulation. Einar told us that the English translations on each sculpture were not always exactly correct.
After food, Carolina suggested we go to a bar nearby where couchsurfers were having a meet-up. I was up for meeting some other travelers and Einar said the meet-ups were usually fun. We plopped down with some beers and waited for the hour to turn. Soon we were surrounded by a group of travelers including Icelandic hosts and people visiting from other countries.
About 15 people sat around a table discussing travels, sharing cultural backgrounds, and exchanging ideas for the days ahead in Iceland. The countries represented at the table were: Scotland, Canada, Switzerland, Iceland, England, Spain, Germany, Brazil, USA, and others.
My ears tuned into a conversation between a few people deciding to rent a car to travel the entire circumference of the country. My itinerary did not match up well enough with some of them, but a French Canadian guy from Quebec named Fabrice and Carolina voiced their desire to take a similar trip. Their schedules were a match with mine and so road trip plans began.
One of the couchsurfers offered suggestions on where we could go, another gave us a discount card for gas, and another hooked us up with a car rental for a reasonable price. Everything just fell into place and felt right so we scheduled to pick up the car in the morning and figure out the rest as we went.
Allowing events to unfold and fall into place on their own without much planning may not be the most typical way to travel, but deviating from that norm led me to having an amazing experience road tripping Iceland’s Ring Road this past week.
I now sit here a little sad that there are only 2 days left to my time in Iceland. But I am so thankful for all of the resources I found back in Reykjavik last week. Without the connection to the couchsurfing community there and Einar’s generosity, I never would have met Fabrice and Carolina to travel with and share expenses and experiences. Even better, I have made friends with these two (and many others along the way!) that I am certain I will reconnect with in the future. I am looking forward to sharing the adventures I have been having in the days to come as I gear up for my travel in Germany.
Iceland is so rich with spectacular view after spectacular view. If you check out my twitter and Instagram you will get a sneak peek. Otherwise, expect a photo diary of the road trip and other posts in the coming days.