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iceland: how solo travel can and will transform you

Iceland is at the top of a lot of people's travel bucket lists - and for good reason. The history is fascinating, the landscapes are awe-inspiring, and the people are uniquely friendly.


But the three months I spent in Iceland weren't exactly all sunshine and moss and waterfalls and rainbows.


If I were to summarise my experience in Iceland, it would be this: It was one of those things that you know ahead of time will change your life forever. But then when you do it, and it changes your life forever, it still manages to feel new and novel and fantastic and well - life changing.


a figure stands with arms extended in front of a large waterfall
Skógafoss on the Southern coast

Two years after this experience began, I'm returning to it one more time. This is my definitive account of my time in Iceland. A lot of this will be taken and revised from my final reflective project for my degree, intermixed with how I see the experience two years later.


My solo trip to Iceland was hard and weird and now it's a part of me. It taught me the power, good and bad, of being alone, and it made me a more fearless person than I ever thought I could be. If you're considering travelling by yourself for the first time, I hope you read this and get a feel for how the confusion and isolation are heavy - but they're also empowering.


The writing below is full of contradictions - I was anxious, I opened up to the world, I was eager to go home, I wish wholeheartedly to go back someday. These clashing emotions are an accurate picture of the experience. Things were confusing and turbulent and magical. Above all else, it was transformative.


Solo travel can and will change you for the better if you let it.


A woman with long blond hair looks out at a pool and waterfall surrounded by a grey rock formation
Iceland is perfect for lovers of waterfalls. This is Hjálparfoss.
 

how I ended up in Iceland


Following my second year of university, I travelled to Iceland for a 3-month long internship. My program of study requires us to go abroad and get experience working in a different cultural context (one of the selling points for why I chose it!)


Normally, our faculty would be sending people to places in Asia, Africa, and South America. But as this was 2022, we were contained to countries that had similar COVID protocols to Canada. This was a disappointment for sure, but when one of my few options was Iceland, I was excited - I'd been fascinated by the small country for years.


The organisation I was volunteering with in Iceland works on various environmental projects throughout the country, and hosts volunteers from around the world who come to work on things like cleaning ocean plastic from beaches, planting trees, and more. In addition to this work, I would be responsible for facilitating the daily activities of the household for those who came to volunteer for the organization. I won't be naming the organisation because they're not about to get the best review.


If you're reading this as someone thinking of going to Iceland and volunteering, please message me. There are surely better organizational opportunities out there than what I did.


I went to Iceland with very little preparation. I booked my plane ticket only two weeks before I left, and I knew only the basic parameters of my job description before arriving.


the journey there


The final exam of my Winter 2022 semester at university started on a Saturday at 7pm. At 5:30am the following morning, I was on my way to the airport.

The airport was unfortunately in Maine, because flying internationally out of my home in New Brunswick is economically incompatible with a student budget.


Hauling my suitcase in tow, I endured a hellish 25-hour journey from Fredericton to Iceland. By booking the longest flight trajectory possible (through Dublin of all places) (student budget) I managed to save myself a few hundred dollars, and give myself heaps of time to think.


Unlike many university students who first venture out on their own when they move into their freshman dorm rooms, I lived at home with my parents throughout my degree. When they dropped me off at the airport, I was truly on my own for the first time in my life.


Out of my classmates traveling to countries such as Greece, France, and Italy (I pulled the short straw on weather conditions) I was the first to leave by two weeks. I felt... pointedly untethered.


I managed to cry almost non-stop throughout my travel day. I wasn't so much scared to be on my own as I was sad to be leaving home. Airport workers looked at me with pity as I tried and failed to order lunch without bursting into tears.


I arrived, looking and feeling extremely haggard, at the airport in Keflavík, and bought a bus ticket to the capital, Reykjavík.


I remember being so nervous I couldn't remember how airports worked. I walked in circles around duty free for a while. I hadn't yet figured out the conversion from Icelandic Krónas to Canadian Dollars, so I hoped that the price I was paying for the bus wasn't too crazy.


I remember thinking on that bus ride that the earth there looked like Mars. Visually and contextually, everything was surreal. The road was surrounded by vast fields of bumpy lava rocks covered in spotty mosses. The landscape was not yet green, as Winter had only just barely yielded to Spring. Any travel blog will tell you that Iceland looks like another planet - and it's no joke.


Rocks are seen from a bus window

I was supposed to get picked up at the bus station in Reykjavík by a supervisor at the organization. I was picked by an Icelandic man with about 10 teeth who I later found out, didn't even work for the organisation. Everyone else was busy that day.


He asked if I wouldn't mind if we drove his wife to work before taking me to my destination. I figured that I didn't have anywhere else to be, so may as well. I was there to immerse myself in the culture after all.


After a brief 45 minute delay (his wife was quite nice), the driver took me to the organization's house just outside of Reykjavík. No one answered the door when we knocked, so we let ourselves in. There was no one home. Since he didn't, in fact, actually work at the organization, my driver wished me well and left me in the silence of this house.


The silence in such a strange place made me feel like an alien. It gave me some time to cry in peace. I crept around the house and wondered what I had gotten myself into.


After a few hours, people started showing up to the house, and I wasn't literally alone. On that first night, the other volunteers I met from Germany and Guatemala made me feel so welcomed. I think they could tell I was very apprehensive (probably from my puffy eyes from crying for the last 48 hours), but their kindness softened the sting of isolation.


 

being solo started out rough


My first few weeks in Iceland were very emotionally exhausting for me, and I would consider it to have been one of the most difficult periods of change I've ever experienced.


I was placed in the organization's house in Solheímar, an Ecovillage in Southern Iceland. Interestingly, even though my primary job was supposed to be leading a volunteer household, there were no volunteers in Solheímar. Just a bunch of people working the same position as me.


This was definitely not right for the purpose of my internship, which was specifically supposed to be about working in that position of leadership (see: the fact that my area of study is leadership). I liked being among peers rather than leading others when I felt so unconfident in myself.


We worked each day at the forestry centre in the village. I enjoyed the gardening work we did there, but I just never felt relaxed. I was always really conscious of my hands and that I usually didn't know what I was supposed to be doing.


Bird's eye view of black seedling containers filled with various types of green saplings

Each day when I returned from an 8-hour work day in the cold, rainy Icelandic Spring, I would shower to recover physically (fingers frozen and caked in tree sap), and spend an hour alone in my room to recover mentally. I was just tired all the time - tired of thinking so hard about what to say next and being too nervous to ask questions when I was confused. After more than two weeks of relying on this routine of isolation trying to stay afloat, I began to wonder how I would survive another 10 weeks.


I was confused why I wasn't happy - this was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it was emotionally and physically taxing. Sure, the food was pretty bad, but the accommodations were good. I couldn't even blame my discomfort on bad roommates. The people I was working with and living with for those two weeks were actually some of my favourite people I met during my entire time in Iceland.


Five people smile in front of a large waterfall
Group outing to Gulfoss - one of the biggest tourist attractions in Iceland only 30 mins from the village!
A loaf of bread and picnic on the side of a river
A weekend picnic at the river with our fresh-baked bread
 

Rather than flounder in my anxiety and confusion, I decided to make a conscious effort to relax in my environment. I journaled to make sense of my thoughts and emotions, and I spent as much time as I could outdoors.


Some of the best memories I have of this time are when I would walk the trail around the village after work or on weekends. The loop went through forests that felt enchanted, and crossed the still-yellow plains between mountains.


A path through trees with sunlight shining in through the trees

I tried even harder to force myself out of my room and make friends. One friend in particular who helped me get comfortable was Andrea from Mexico. If you're reading this, hiiiii!!


Two women take a selfie. One of them holds a red beer can
Andrea and I on our way to a party (not that you can tell, but it's nighttime. Thanks midnight sun!) We drank lots of cheap beer during this time.

A turning point for me emotionally was the three-week mark.


A loved one back home tried to impress upon me the idea that if you repeat something over the period of 21 days, it will become a habit. Obviously this doesn't apply universally, but in the context of finding my comfort zone in Iceland, it was real.


After 21 days, getting up and going to work, having my meals with the other volunteers, and spending my leisure time socialising rather than isolating started to feel less heavy.


I began to find joy in the things that used to give me anxiety. I became more motivated to go above my minimum job requirements. I started to form connections with members of the community and locals where I was living. I still struggled, but it no longer took over every minute of every day.


When I was able to focus on something other than how emotionally overwhelmed I was, I began to take in the benefits of a slower lifestyle and the connections I had formed.


In the foreground is a book. The background is a sunset and a green field.

 

The following section is a revised section of an assignment I wrote while in Iceland. I've taken out a lot of the "academic" stuff, so I think you'll enjoy it (especially you, Sally Rooney readers!). You can press here to skip to when I get on with the story.


unraveling the concept of independence

Much of my spare time in Iceland was spent reading Sally Rooney novels - Normal People, Conversations with Friends, and Beautiful World, Where Are You? In Rooney's writing, I found a new understanding of the concepts of independence, vulnerability, and living in codependency or cohabitation with others.


Rooney's writing reflects her identity as a Marxist, and her ethical leaning toward the feminist care perspective. Rooney describes the feminist care ethical perspective as “putting the caring relationships between human beings at the centre of an ethical vision instead of the rights and responsibilities of the individual". Her novels explore the impact of socioeconomic differences on our human relationships; and no matter the plot of a Sally Rooney novel, the focus of the prose is squarely on the interpersonal vulnerabilities of the characters.

“Maybe we're just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing. And if that means the human species is going to die out, isn't it in a way a nice reason to die out, the nicest reason you can imagine? Because when we should have been reorganising the distribution of the world's resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead. Because we loved each other too much and found each other too interesting. And I love that about humanity, and in fact it's the very reason I root for us to survive - because we are so stupid about each other.” (Rooney, 2021, p. 232)

While reading or rereading Rooney's novels in Iceland, I spent time reflecting on how individualist, late-stage capitalist, Western society trends more and more toward social isolation under the guise of being independent. But independence in this sense is not all it's cracked up to be.


Society praises people brave enough to be self-empowered and self-sustaining. Being alone is thought of as the best way to get to know oneself. Well, I did it. I got up, packed my bags, and went to the middle of nowhere all alone to learn about myself.


What did I learn?


Independence is overrated. Relying on others can be just as beautiful as it is treacherous. Vulnerability is strength. Solo travel isn't the be-all-end-all of self-discovery.


Fields of wild flowers and mountains under a blue sky

Humans have relied on each other for survival, comfort, and love for as long as we've been around. Why should we let our modern world change our way of approaching community? As Rooney puts it:

"Our rich and complex international networks of production and distribution have come to an end before, but here we are, you and I, and here is humanity. What if the meaning of life on earth is not eternal progress toward some unspecified goal - the engineering and production of more and more powerful technologies, the development of more and more complex and abstruse cultural forms? What if those things just rise and recede naturally, like tides, while the meaning of life remains the same always - just to live and be with other people?"  (Rooney, 2021, p. 161)

Many times while in Iceland, I entered a common space in a home and felt awkward, unsure of what to do or say, and nervous about how to act. I would retreat to a quiet corner. But looking back now, 90% of the most impactful experiences I had in Iceland happened when I found the courage to stay in the common room; to go on the optional adventure; to speak to someone new.


A woman takes a photo out a car window. The sun is bright in the window

I used to understand the term "independence" as a state of being that was inherently strong, secure, and fulfilling. I attribute this in part to the capitalist-consumerist ideal of the autonomous worker who relies on no one else but themselves to acquire wealth.


After living in Sólheímar (which I will detail the community-living aspects of further below) and spending evenings with Sally Rooney, I began to see independence as something more complex. Yes, individuals can find strength in independence. But strength can be more commonly found in numbers and in an open mind.


"One of my favourite things has become sitting in the kitchen with whoever else is there in the evenings as we cook and eat, talk about our days, tell stories, etc. I like to learn from these people. And while we sit there, it feels like time stops moving and we're just there to enjoy each others company" - An excerpt from my journal (June 17, 2022).

In opening myself up to connecting with those around me, I made memories and learned things about myself that I couldn't have found alone. “No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.” (Rooney, 2018, p. 138).


Sally Rooney's words on the importance of human connection and interaction, even in an age when humans seem to be more isolated than ever, stick with me today.


Embarking on an internship alone may have seemed, at first glance, like an opportunity to become more independent. But what it really taught me is that human connection is nothing to fear.


A group of 9 women stand smiling. in the background is mountains and coast
A group day trip with other workers at the Organization to the western Reykjanes Peninsula

 

my "i'm not cut out for this" era


During and immediately following my time in Iceland, I truly believed that I would never solo travel again. Like - I'm not I'm not the kind of person who can feel at ease alone. I need someone, anyone, to bounce my feelings off of.


It was difficult to see almost everyone else coming to the organisation coming in pairs, while I was solo. There were two other students from my program also in Iceland on their internships at the same time, but our paths only crossed a few times.


Two years down the line, my stance has shifted. I still don't think that solo travel is inherently more valiant or impactful than traveling with a friend or a group. But I also don't think - as I did at the time - that solo travel can only be enjoyed by someone who is fiercely independent.


The solo trips I've done in the two years since have gone considerably more smoothly. (Well maybe smooth isn't the word I should use, but certainly less emotionally taxing - see: my trip to Banff last year).


I'm more than capable of handling myself abroad - Iceland was simply a rough first time.


A woman is neck deep in water. Behind her is a hut with a grass roof
Taken at Hrunalaug natural hot spring

Anyone alone in a strange place for the first time could face some initial feelings of isolation. In hindsight, most of the issues I faced in Iceland were not because of my social isolation, but can be attributed to the organization I was working with.


There was a complete lack of communication between us leaders and our supervisors, which lead to a lot of frustration with the volunteers and the community partners we worked with. Sometimes we just wouldn't have groceries for a few days when we were running out of food, or there wasn't enough beds in the house for the number of people they sent us.


I was increasingly frustrated with my university for having sent me here without vetting the organization beforehand. To make matters worse, my internship supervisor, who was supposed to be checking in on us regularly and helping us as we go through the process, was actively in the process of resigning and did not give a single damn about us. I felt very abandoned by all possible sources of institutional support.


It turned out my being left alone at the house when I got dropped off my first day was a pretty apt prelude to the experience I would have working with them.


 

sunny days in the South


After spending almost two months in Solheímar, I was finally comfortable. I led a group of volunteers by myself for the first time - a lovely group who came from Mexico. I had made friends enough in the village to have gone to a few local parties. I went to the community events hosted (including a musical in all Icelandic), learned how to make soap, and went on some awesome side adventures with friends. I went on an awesome road trip out to the Reykjanes Peninsula out West, and spent a week with my mom in Reyjavík (a much needed break from the organisation).


A bright pink sunset over a city and harbour surrounded by mountains
On my first night in Rekyjavík, I randomly woke up at 3am. I went onto the balcony of our hotel room and found that the prolonged sunset of the midnight sun had made the sky come alive. I almost never wake up in the night, so I can only assume the universe urged me awake to see this.

I'll be discussing these trips in part two of this post where I take you through all of the recommendations I have after spending 3 months in Iceland!


A roch formation with a large hole in the centre
Taken at Dritvik Djúpalónssandur on the west coast of Iceland.

The social and cultural environment in Sólheímar was unique compared to anything I have experienced before. Sólheímar is an Ecovillage, meaning it intends to support an ecologically sustainable lifestyle for its residents. Sólheímar is unique among Ecovillages, as it is a community specifically designed to house, employ, and uplift intellectually impaired individuals.


It has the usual Ecovillage things - solar panels, green houses, thermal energy - but it also had things like an arts studio, a gymnasium, a church, and communal housing for the intellectually impaired residents. The people that lived and worked there, myself included, embraced a calmer pace of life; one more focused on the people around us.


Shelves covered in various pieces of pottery
One of my absolute favourite opportunities I had in Sólheímar was to spend a few days in the pottery studio with the residents. I got to make and paint my own piece, which is now a treasured keepsake.

As someone who has always done 10 extra curriculars and had 2 jobs on the go, it was almost surreal to go about my days here. To finish a day of work and not have 20 things on my to do list. To sit in a field on a Sunday afternoon and not hear the nagging of things waiting for me when I got back.


It feels almost like a dream to me now - the cool but sunny evenings I would spend walking in circles around the village. How my isolation from the world I missed back home could also feel like a balm. My growing frustration with the organization could wait when it was just me among the fields and young forests.


 

My favourite memory in Solheímar is of a day spent hiking. A group made up of volunteers from the organisation, other workers at the village forestry centre, and workers at the village greenhouse ventured out on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We were to hike a mountain outside the village that I'd spent weeks admiring from afar.


We walked along the highway for a while, then down some farm lanes next to sheep and Icelandic horse pastures. We passed a farmhouse and surrounding land littered with junker cars and old airplanes, and then came to the mountain.


This was the weirdest mountain I'd ever climbed. Growing up in Eastern Canada, I'm used to trails surrounded by thick woods on either side, clearing only at the top for a nice view and then descending back into the forest. Well, Iceland is a little different. Fun fact for you, Iceland was almost completely deforested in the first few centuries of its colonisation. (That's actually why I was in Solheímar - I was planting saplings as part of the effort to reforest Iceland!)


Anyway, this mountain was almost completely covered in moss. Not a tree in sight. Root and branch were replaced by moss and rock. We reached the peak and the sun was shining more than I'd seen in the entire month I'd been there thus far. It was 20 degrees!!


Three people are seen from behind as they hike up a bare mountain under blue sky

We picnicked and then lounged around at the summit for over an hour. We admired the view of the distant glaciers and volcanoes. I laid in the bed of moss and had one of the best naps of all time. It was a perfect day.


Two figures lay on yellow moss on a mountain in the foreground. In the middle ground are rivers and pasture lands. In the background are grey mountains and white glaciers
In the distance you can see one of Iceland's largest glaciers, Eyjafjallajökull (try saying that 5 times fast) and the active volcanoes Katla and Eyjafjöll.

And then I was sent to a new home.


things take a sharp left turn

and proceed to go down a weird hill


The organisation temporarily moved me up North, to their biggest house. This place can house up to 30 people and it is in the back arse of nowhere. On the side of the main highway with no other civilisation in sight.


When I tell you that this place was cold and creepy.... there was literally a Netflix horror movie filmed in the basement. Like, it is CREEPY.


A person swings a golf club on the side of the road. Other sits in a pile of green fishing nets.
This pic accurately captures this aura of this house. People sitting in and playing with garbage.

Here my purpose shifted from planting trees to cleaning beaches. There were significantly more volunteers here, so I also had to finally take on more of my intended role leading groups of people. We were supposed to be venturing out 2 or 3 times per week to clean a stretch of beach of ocean plastic. The rest of the time was supposed to be spent sorting the trash from the beach, or helping with renovations to the house.


There were two key problems: 1) The beach cleaning schedule was non-existent. And, 2) The person leading the house renovations was actually The Worst. Let's unpack these.


  1. The beach cleaning schedule. We didn't have a car at the house for our use, and the beaches to clean were upwards of a 30 minute drive away. There was always a reason why no one could pick us up to go to the beach that day - the car was broken (again), the other houses need help, someone is at the airport - on and on and on. We hardly ever actually got to go clean beaches.


And listen, I don't mind not having the opportunity to go spend 4 hours freezing my ass off on an Icelandic beach and wanting to cry after spending 30 minutes trying to clean microplastics from one square foot of sand. To be so real, I'd rather just stay home and bake the bread.


Figures in blue jackets fill bright yellow bags with trash on a rocky beach.
When we did go beach cleaning, we would bring home hundreds of pounds of trash. Most of it was made up of fishing nets, which are often carelessly cut away from fishing vessels throughout the Atlantic when they become tangled.

But imagine being one of the volunteers who pay the organization hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to go to "do environmental work" in Iceland. They go there with big hopes of helping the earth and getting to do real hands-on work, and then they end up only getting to go out to the beach once or twice during their 2 week trip. That's just cruel.


2. The man leading the renovations was supposedly, an artist. He had grand visions for this dusty house, and he had lots of free labourers to help him make it a reality. The Artist's problems were first, his personality (misogynistic, rude, abrasive.. need I really go on after misogynistic?); and second, his expertise (lacking; HEAVILY lacking). This man (actually) couldn't install a shower head correctly and was supposed to renovate this three floor building. His biggest problem was spending - this man would be buying expensive stone countertops (to suit his "vision") that would sit on top of cabinets that were falling apart.


The weirdest thing about my time in this house was that everyone else seemed to love it. Volunteers who lived there for weeks on end hated to leave, and talked continually about the positive experienced they'd had there. Really? All I got was sandy socks from the ever-dirty floors, and overstimulated from eating dinner crammed in an echoey room with 20 other people.


A waterfall flows off a cliff surrounded by green hills
One of the nice days I did have here was to a nearby hiking area. The hike followed a small canyon with many lovely waterfalls.

Luckily I only spent a few days there before I was sent to the waaay north: Siglufjördur.

 

Siglufjördur: a lesson in self mastery


I spent two weeks in the farthest North place I had ever been, a tiny fishing village nestled in a far Northern fjord.


Snow-peaked mountains are reflected in calm water.  A duck swims in  the water

I was told that I would be working in forestry again, and that the house where I would be living was under construction. I thought it was no big deal, having lived in the previous house which was also under construction. But I massively underestimated the nerve of the organization and the Artist (who was now several weeks into a "break" on renovating this place).


When I'm describing this, just try to remember that there were people PAYING for to volunteer here:

  • No laundry (we had to use the village laundromat which, because about 1200 people live there, is only open about 3 days a week)

  • No real kitchen - yup. The main kitchen was completely non-functional, so we had a makeshift one which included a stove, a fridge, and a sink. Cabinets? No. Counter space? No. More than 10 square feet of space? Don't be ridiculous.

  • One bedroom. For up to 15 people staying there. Seriously it was one bedroom, and then one huge bunk room. On my first few nights, I stayed in the bunk room with 10 guys. I wouldn't say I was scared, but I certainly wasn't relaxed. After that, I ended up being the most senior staff person on site, so I got the bedroom. Sorry losers!

  • One shower that was placed on top of a pile of loose tiles, and the knobs to turn it on and off were on the other side of the room.

  • No flooring in the (makeshift) kitchen, bathroom, or shower room. Just concrete.

  • No walls in the stairwell, just concrete and what I can only assume were piles of asbestos dust everywhere.

  • A very unique feature of the entryway where we kept our shoes: an abandoned elevator shaft half covered by some pieces of wood.


Half-assembled bunk beds and bare mattresses in a white room with large windows
On our first day arriving, we had to build our beds in the bunkroom.

The living conditions were certainly less than ideal, but they were better than the job we had to do.

 

in my manual labour era

In Silgufjödur, I was supposed to be planting trees. But when I got there, the plot of land allocated to tree planting was already full and the park was in the process of finding a new plot for us. In the meantime, we worked on landscaping and trail maintenance.


Never again will I take a trail for granted.


We spent long days in the cold Northern rain filling wheelbarrows with gravel, pushing them up and down the foothills of the mountain, and raking it to create pathways in the woods. On a non-gravel day, we would lug piles of dead branches and logs down the mountain. Other times we raked lawns or made signage. It was the first time I've worked a job that is straight up manual labour, and I can't say I enjoyed it much.


A shovel and a pile of gravel in front of a mist-obscured mountain
Even when the work was tough, the views were amazing.

Things might have been better if the company was great. I didn't make very many close connections in Siglufjördur. At this point, I only had about three weeks left of my trip, and I had one foot out the door. After work, I just wanted to read my books, take walks around the village, and dream about eating vegetables that hadn't traveled 3 weeks to get to the edge of the world.


This was a different isolation to that of my first few weeks: I wasn't anxious or lonely, I was just done with working for this organization and didn't really click with anyone around me.

Four circles of wood with the names Kate, Sam, Maud, and Kamil painted on them
The organization provided us with paint (but not paint brushes) to make keepsakes to hang at the park where we worked.

Unfortunately, my work supervisor here was the Worst Man On Earth, Paul. Within 5 minutes of meeting Paul on my first day, he had used the R-word in reference to another volunteer with the organisation. He made no secret of his distaste for women or his smugness in holding this well-paying job where he spent all day delegating his responsibilities to us.


Paul would instruct us on building paths or lugging trees, and then spend a few hours warm and dry in the park's little house. He would venture out every now and then to make fun of us for being weak and yell at us for doing things wrong, and then go back to watching Youtube inside.


Paul and I did not get along well. I have a hard time hiding my irritation, and Paul has a hard time not irritating me

 

Even with less-than-ideal living conditions and unfortunate working conditions, I found a certain peace in Siglufjördur. I felt sure of myself in a way I hadn't for months. Between loads of gravel, I got to bask in the beauty of an Icelandic fjord at the height of lupin season. I didn't think so hard about what to say anymore.

A waterfall flows between green cliffs covered in wild flowers

I often went for walks around the area. There wasn't much to do in this little fishing village, so I became acquainted with the sparkle of the water off the docks. I conferred with the fog hanging on the tips of the surrounding mountains, and from the shitty balcony of my shitty house, watched the orange glow of sunset reflected on the village church. I spent hours journalling and studying wildflowers and watching local cats and avoiding local birds.


In the foreground: wildflowers. In the background, a small vilage surrounded by snow peaked mountains.

 

re-entering polite society

When it came time to leave Iceland and return to more familiar contexts and fairer weather, I can't say I wasn't relieved.


At the time, I was eager to move on from what was a truly demanding time in my life - I was challenged socially, mentally, culturally, and emotionally. I was encountering and working through all of these struggles without much immediate support from anyone around me in Iceland. Of course I was ready to leave.


Looking back now, I'm able to see the rewards for these challenges. I find myself less shy and more outgoing, more adaptable and flexible, and more appreciative of a slow pace of life. My love of adventure, which suffered during the pandemic, was reignited with the added fuel of self-assurance.


It's true - that being alone is a great way to get to know yourself. I learned more about myself in those three months than in any other three month period of my life. I had the opportunity to experience Icelandic culture (what a fascinating place + people! More on that in part 2), and the international nature of the organisation connected me with people from France, Germany, Ireland, Colombia, Brazil, Slovakia, Mexico, Guatemala, Italy, Poland, Spain, Argentina... and the list goes on.


Five smiling women take a selfie
Some of the first friends I made in Sólheímar

how to let solo travel transform you

When I left Iceland, I thought I would never travel alone again. I see now that that was the resolve of a person who had a rocky start to solo travelling. If I could have such a transformative experience while working with a less-than-ideal organisation, just think of how magical solo travel is when you're not tied down to that source of dysfunction.


Travelling alone is like meeting yourself. You're removed from all familiarity; the patterns you live inside of in your "normal" life. You're removed from the people you spend your time with and those you hold dear. I'm hardly the first author to appreciate the impact of being left with only yourself and the world at your feet.


A woman in pink shoes sits in a field of lupins. IN the background are snow peaked grey mountains
On a break from lugging trees in Siglufjödur

You encounter yourself in a strange perspective. You watch how she reacts to the unfamiliar, and you comfort her in the awkward, and you rely on her in the challenging.


Iceland taught me that I don't need to know everything before I go, that I don't need to be fearless to go, and I don't need to be happy the whole time in order for it to be worthwhile.


I'll leave you with this passage from an email I wrote in a chain with my friends with the subject line "Leaked Diary Pages":


"Today is my third-to-final full day in Iceland and there are so many thoughts I am having. It feels wrong to let myself fully feel the excitement of heading home. I feel like in my time here, I've formed a friendship with Iceland itself. Like literally the ground beneath my feet. (...) Dealing with these uncomfortable living and working conditions has led me to developing this disease where I sort of think of my life as me and Iceland against my organisation. (...) I feel guilty, because I love Iceland itself and as I'm sure I've talked about endlessly before, I feel bad about not finding every moment of this amazing opportunity to be perfect-amazing-life-changing. I've definitely become more adaptable and flexible through my experience here, and gained a lot of perspective. I feel like I've grown up quite a bit. Shovelling gravel and burning your bread will do that to you". (2022, July 10)

Icelandic horses in a green pasture with purple lupins

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