As I sat there in the silver, rickety tin-can of a car, bundled in my purple “omni-heat” Columbia jacket, I took off my gloves and reminded myself to breathe. According to the calendar, the days of winter were vanishing, but the snow and ice along the roads told me otherwise. I was in Reykjavík, Iceland, the northernmost capital of the world. While I was overjoyed to finally hit the (Ring) Road, I was also petrified. I had never driven in another country beside the United States before, unless you count Vancouver, BC, Canada in the peak of summer.
Now, Iceland is not a difficult island to explore, per se. People are very friendly, weird amenities like ice cleats and vegan snacks and puffin-shaped keychains are all readily available when you arrive in town. The problem is the space in between. In the weeks before, when I was exploring Snæfellsnes, Vík, and the Golden Circle, I couldn’t imagine venturing out on my own in a rental car. With the relentless snow, the ice that had me cursing the day I quit ice skating, and the chill that got into my bones and froze my face, I ruminated about the what-ifs.
What if I were driving alone, on a vast stretch of mountain road, and the car broke down on me? Even though it’s a so-called Ring Road, I get lost easily. With my luck, I’d be the one to die of hypothermia out in the Westfjords just because I took a wrong turn. Previous to this moment, I had relied on organized tours to explore the southwestern region of Iceland, and with good reason.
Nonetheless, here I was, ready to head out into the other-worldly landscapes of Iceland I had longed for ages to see. Solo travel wasn’t anything new to me, but here, it took on a new meaning. I was really, truly alone with nature, and it was as liberating as it is frightening. If you’ve never been to Iceland, you may not be aware that during winter, the horizon often appears to have no color. The black jagged mountains are juxtaposed by unending heaps of white snow, and the road you drive upon is one infinite, geothermally-heated, ribbon of grey. It mesmerizes you, stuns you, makes you question how this earth could at once be so alien and so riveting at the same time.
I had witnessed these mind-boggling landscapes in many of Bjork’s music videos, and longed to see this part of the earth. However, I wasn’t prepared for how big of an impact these terrains would have on me. Iceland is not a place that you visit and forget about; it is a country and a culture that stays with you, leaving you with a lingering sweetness on your tongue that you just can’t quite figure out. It’s a mysterious place, and there is a reason why people are flocking in droves to this island (and it’s not just the cheap WOW plane tickets).
While this juxtaposition may boggle you, I think I fell in love with Iceland for some of the same reasons I fell in love with India. Now, the former boasts a gender-equality and standard of living that the latter desperately lacks. The two countries are absolutely nothing alike. Except they are; they are both achingly mysterious. Despite their differences in size, social systems, and overall GDP, they align within me because they leave you reminiscing, wondering, yearning to go back.
I spent five weeks in Iceland, mainly because I a) had been wanting to go for so long and b) I refused to leave without seeing the Northern Lights (I saw them twice). However, after all of this time, you would think that I would have seen everything that I wanted to. Wrong. I saw many places that I had dreamed of, but still, there are many more that I have yet to see and experience.
Here are some of the wonderful experiences I had my first time in Iceland:
- Reykjavík’s amazing vegan cuisine and street art
- Snæfellsnes Peninsula
- The Golden Circle (especially the UNESCO site of Þingvellir, where the American and European tectonic plates meet)
- The Northern Lights
And here are the experiences I need to go back to have:
- Witness the magic of these landscapes in the colorful midnight sun
- Go whale watching
- See the puffins
- Volunteer with arctic foxes in the Westfjords
- Do a glacier walk
- Dive between the American and European tectonic plates
There is no doubt how grateful I am that I was able to spend so much time in Iceland. I learned some Icelandic, saw jaw-dropping topography, made new friends, and began to understand a bit about Iceland’s Viking roots and present-day culture. Iceland was everything I expected, and so much more. I understand why it has become such a popular destination, and just hope that its burst in tourism is met with a sustainable approach by tourists and tourism boards alike. It truly is a magical place, and there is no better destination for getting to know oneself amidst the wild, vast formations that only nature could create.
Have you been to Iceland? If so, what were your favorite sites or activities? Please share in the comments below!