After a couple weeks of working at Silva, I was scheduled to go and stay with a CouchSurfing host and meet up with a girl from France so that we could travel around for a day. But the thing to remember while traveling the way I do is that plans, regardless of how far in advance they’re made, are often broken and changed beyond recognition before all is said and done. All you can do is hold on for the ride and hope everything turns out alright.
This is the story of CouchSurfing gone (somewhat) wrong.
Laura, the French girl, and I had been in contact for almost three months up to this point and were getting excited about finally getting around to traveling Iceland. The original plan had been to rent a car for ten days and just live out of it, driving around the country and meeting people every day, seeing everything Iceland had to offer. But budget restrictions and advice from other travelers made camping in a car seem impossible during the winter months here, so she decided to move more slowly, hitching and CouchSurfing, and I went for WorkAway as an alternative. But we still planned on meeting this week finally to maybe do one day of travel.
After finishing some final work at the house/restaurant, Sandra took me to town and dropped me off near Sveinn’s home. Online he had seemed quite friendly and down to earth, and had accumulated 75 positive references in only four months. Sounds great, yeah?
After inviting me in it was evident something odd was going on. Not bad necessarily, but… odd. Two women a little younger than me were hanging out in the living room speaking Dutch to each other. Two small birds chirped angrily at each other incessantly, flying every few seconds between picture frames hanging from the walls. Handing Sveinn some curry I’d made, he went to drop it off in the kitchen and I introduced myself to Marika and Rosana, who introduced themselves as theater students from Holland.
For those who don’t know (like myself before I asked Marika), Holland is the southern part of the Netherlands. They speak Dutch, as in Belgium.
They were in Iceland as part of a school project (like, what?). CouchSurfing in almost every section of Iceland over a period of three weeks, they interviewed members of several communities and some book authors about Icelanders’ experiences with elves. A minority of Icelanders believe in the possibility, probability, or certainty of the existence of elves, and some people have even written about having sexual relationships with them. There are over a hundred different species, ranging from what English speakers would consider fairies up to full-size human-like elves with or without pointy ears. The Icelandic word for them is Huldufólk, meaning ‘the hidden people,’ so seeing them is rare, but they’re supposedly friendly and here for the protection of nature and the people who live here. The folklore of Iceland was one of the most influential sources of story-telling for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Icelandic: Miðgarður).
That was all well and fine, but as we sat down to dinner it became clear something was off about our host. He kept talking, and talking, and talking… and talk…. zzz.
While trying to make conversation, it was clear he didn’t understand other people had things to say, so the three of us sat in relative silence as we were lectured on things like toothpaste brands and why grass is green. All the while, the birds were flying around us, terrifyingly close to our faces. Sveinn was entirely unaffected by this and continued to drone on.
When it was finally time to sleep, I had to wrap my face in my scarf to indicate I was ready to sleep as our host continued with his monologue about God-knows-what. Marika and Rosana took it in good stride (except for the birds) and helped keep me sane. The next day, we had planned to take a car out to see the major landmarks in the north of Iceland and get out of the house for as long as possible. That night as I ‘slept,’ I was woken up constantly by the girls because I was snoring (which I apparently do when I’m sick), so I got no rest whatsoever. I wasn’t mad at them because I would have done the same thing, but when you’re sick and you get no sleep, it’s a recipe for disaster.
So we woke up at 8, had the most awkward breakfast in all of history, got our car, and started driving out of town. But as we were taking a bridge over the fjord’s river, we saw a guy with a backpack twice his size walking along the road and taking pictures. I stopped the car and rolled down the window.
He put his camera down and turned toward us.
”ARE YOU TRAVELING? WANT TO COME WITH US? WE’RE GOING TO MÝVATN!”
He ran over to the car and pulled out a map.
”Hi! I am going here?” he said, pulling out a map and pointing to a section labeled ‘MÝVATN’ that had been circled several times in heavy pen.
”That’s where we’re going! That okay guys?” I asked the girls.
”Yes, this is alright with us!”
And so we picked up a random guy for a day of adventure. He introduced himself as Jeijong Jang (spelling approximate– we all spent about an hour trying to perfect our pronunciation of his name), a South Korean. He had been camping for several weeks around Europe and Iceland. In this weather.
SO HERE’S WHAT WE DID.
First stop: Goðafoss
This was a must, since the others hadn’t seen it yet. If you haven’t read that post, you can do that now!
Our next stop was Mývatn (mý – midge, vatn – water or lake), a large, shallow lake in the middle of northern Iceland near a large number of volcanic craters, geothermally active underground spots and pools. Despite it being a heavily frequented area by tourists, there are only one or two small towns in the area, and by small, I mean a population of less than 300.
Most of the lake itself was frozen over, and the wind was constantly pushing us along the ice as we explored the area’s many craters.
Continuing, we made a pit stop in Reykjahlíð for food, and made our way to our farthest destination next: Dettifoss.
Before that, we made a really quick pit stop at a pool of boiling water fed by an underground geysir, which was pretty cool.
Dettifoss (detti – falling, foss – waterfall…) is supposed to be the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe, and certainly in Iceland. Checking the road conditions is essential in Iceland because of the constantly changing weather, and within an hour of checking conditions, several roads might be completely closed off or possibly even opened up after days of being closed. Fortunately for us, one of the two roads leading to Dettifoss had opened the previous day and went from red (impassable) to pink (difficult driving). Fortunately for my three passengers, they slept through the entirety of my almost killing us several times as I drove along a 22km road covered entirely in ice and slush as the wind pummeled our car and literally pushed us to the edge of the road more times than I could count. The wind was even pushing snow and ice that had already fallen up and over the road in killer death streams, like little white tendrils of terror grabbing at the cars that would dare trespass, and on more than one occasion I couldn’t see 30m in front of the car due to blowing snow and fog. But somehow we made it alive, and everyone woke up just in time to go to the bathroom next to the parking lot.
At first, we followed the footprints in the snow… but after reaching their end, it was evident this was not a waterfall. We’d ended up at some random ravine where everything was frozen, so we turned back and turned to Jeijong’s GPS watch and more footprints to see if we could find another way. Coming back, it was easy to spot the poles sticking out of the snow with red flags that marked the correct path. Oy.
After another half hour of hiking, we saw the waterfall.
And then decided to take the dangerous roped-off path up to higher ground because we live on the edge.
From the top of the east bank, we could feel the immense power of the waterfall. It drove a wind so strong, it was comparable to the gale force winds of tornado season in the Midwest and threw chunks of ice up the side of the canyon, pelting our faces and blowing us away from the edge. But pleasantly, this is the one place I’ve been in Iceland where the wind only has one direction.
By the time we were all done with photos and video, we were freezing our asses off. The wind was too strong for any of our coats to handle, so we headed back to the car post haste, next stop: Kafla volcano.
The road back was, for whatever reason, much easier to drive on. The wind that had screamed death at us for half an hour was suddenly gone and there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
As we approached the volcano, the smell of hard-boiled eggs became inescapable. But instead of being a gross smell, it had a kind of cleanliness to it that made us all actually want eggs.
In a horrible twist of fate, we were a couple kilometers from the viewing point when we ran into a road block consisting of loosely packed snow, so we skipped the volcano and went on to hike Víti (‘Hell’), a large crater created by a volcanic eruption in the early 18th century.
During the summer, a large lake fills the crater, but in the winter, just a few pools of frozen water can be seen.
Our car didn’t have the capacity to drive all the way to the base, so we stopped on the road and went hiking. Everything was marked to make it clear people weren’t allowed to take this path, but when has that stopped me?
Instead of taking a path up, we hiked in a straight line from the bottom after crossing a series of small islands in the surrounding ‘lake.’ The view was incredible, as was the journey up. The sun came out to greet the water below and the higher we went, the more violent the wind became. When we reached the top, we had to dig our hands into the ice frozen to the side to use as a ladder to make it the last few meters to the top of the caldera.
And on the way back down, a rainbow shot out from the ground and fell into the crater. We’d found the pot of gold.
Our final destination was a cave which contained a geothermal pool, Grjótagrá. The pool was very popular as a place for locals and tourists alike to go and bathe until the 70s, when a local volcanic eruption tripled the temperature of the water. Since then, the water has been slowly cooling and now supposedly varies between 43-48 centigrade. The girls were really determined to get in despite the fading daylight and very little light inside the cave, but we had our phone flashlights and it was easy to see after adjusting to the darkness a bit.
Throwing our clothes onto some dry rock surfaces on the inside, we tested the water, but it ended up being wayyyy too hot to get in. It must have been at least 60 centigrade (140 Fahrenheit). Here is a picture of it during daylight, and here is what it looked like when we were inside:
It was surreal. It was like being in a sauna, with tiny droplets of water hanging frailly in the air and sticking to our skin, driven away from the two or three spots of sunlight still trickling in from above. The water is crystal clear and doesn’t smell of sulfur at all. The other three managed to get their legs used to the temperature of the water, but I only managed to keep my feet in for a couple minutes.
It was disappointing, but magical anyway. We soaked our tired, cold feet until we literally couldn’t anymore, dried off and got dressed, and headed back to the car to drive sleepily back to Akureyri and face our awkward host, who had happily agreed to host Jeijong in addition to the girls and I. Oh, and Laura had made it there too. And two Germans.
Now, I’m all for crazy CouchSurfing adventures. And I’m definitely all about getting lots of people from different countries together for dinner. But there’s a certain limit that should probably be stuck to depending on the amount of space you have…
As we made it back to our host’s home, there was hardly any room to move. It was immediately a flurry of introductions and total chaos as Jeijong went to help in the kitchen and people were trying to figure out where everyone was from, set the table, organize backpacks and sleeping bags and mattresses, etc etc. It was actually a whole lot of fun during dinner. The Germans were a mother and daughter, traveling to Iceland to surprise their son, who would be flying to Reykjavík in a couple of days. The mother’s son, like me, had gone on a 6-month world trip and was just coming to the end of it. Having not seen his family for six month, they thought they would greet him in Iceland and travel with him for a couple of days before going back to Germany.
After we devoured the packages of cheese and crackers we had brought, the chicken wings the Germans cooked and Sveinn’s porridge and traditional Icelandic skýr (really thick, creamy yoghurt), we were all ready to pass out. This is where things became not so great. We spread out the mattresses in our room, so that in a 8 x 8 room, we had three mattresses for five people, which turned out to not be enough space, so Laura took the living room where Sveinn also slept (and poor Laura had a phobia of birds and her English was quite broken so she was unable to express this directly to Sveinn, who wouldn’t have listened anyway, because when people tried to talk to him he would scream until everyone was quiet). The two German women stayed in Sveinn’s room. While all this was going on, the birds flew crazily around next to everyone’s heads, pecking at each other and chirping as loudly and angrily as ever. And having been up since quite early and traveling and hiking and driving for a total of 14 hours had gotten to me. I was getting sick from not getting enough rest and when we were finally all situated, Sveinn had it in his mind that I wanted to hear him lecture on the importance of drinking coffee in the morning for twenty minutes.
I wish I could say I fell asleep that night, but I had become even more sick, and my snoring was ceaseless.
To be continued…