As we stared up at the sky, patches of neon and dark green changed to light pink and back to green. They came out of nowhere, hung like curtains on invisible hangers, and danced a duet to an unheard symphony. They would appear, vanish, and reappear all over the sky. My companions, Lulu and Germaine (two friends from France spending the week driving around Iceland), and I stared, bewildered, as the northern lights danced above us. It was the first time we had seen them, and even though it was bitterly cold and we were too lightly dressed, we stayed out, shivering — for hours — watching nature’s brilliant ballet.
Every night before this, we would run outside and then retreat back in defeat, as it was too cloudy for the lights to be seen. But on this night the sky was clear, the stars shone around us, and nature finally let us see its mythic show.
I had high expectations for my visit to Iceland. I’d seen movies and pictures in magazines of land with jagged mountain peaks, volcanoes with desolate lava fields, rolling hills with grazing sheep, and glaciers that stretched for miles. I imagined a utopian country where friendly locals in tune with nature roamed a majestic landscape.
Despite the eagerness to visit Iceland these images caused, I put off this trip over the years. Something always came up. This year, upon reflecting on my list of things I promised I would do and realizing I accomplished none of them, I resolved to finally go and booked a ticket in June. And, as the plane descended into Reykjavik last month, I wondered, “Could the fairytale image in my mind live up to itself?”
It could, in fact, exceed it.
And it happened right away.
From the moment I landed, I was welcomed and helped by kind strangers. There was Bragi, a Couchsurfer tour guide who drove me around the Golden Circle. And Paulina, the smart college student who let me sleep on her couch, took me to an Icelandic play and her family’s farm, revealed a secret “locals-only” swimming hole, and went far out of her way to drop me in the eastern city of Vik to make catching a bus easier. And Paulina’s friend Alga, who also opened up her couch to me at the end of the trip. And Maria and Marta, who proved that Reykjavik’s nightlife is far crazier than anything New York can offer. Then there was the Couchsurfing host in Akureyri who cooked dinner for me and his other guests, and the blog reader (who turned out to be a high-level government official) and her husband who introduced me to their traditional lobster soup (delicious!).
Every step of the way I encountered helpful and excited Icelanders who sought to show off the best of their country. They loved nature, held die-hard beliefs in elves and fairytales (over 50% of Icelanders believe in elves), and appreciated a good pint.
After saying goodbye to my new friends in Reykjavik, I drove around the Ring Road (Iceland’s main highway) with Lulu and Germaine after hitching a ride with them in Vik. Forests morphed into fjords and fjords evolved into moonscape-like lava fields.
Over the next 10 days, my love for Iceland became an obsession, as I was constantly treated to bewildering landscapes and helpful locals. For such a small island, Iceland has a diverse range of landscapes and micro-ecosystems. And as we traveled, hiked, and eagerly waited for the northern lights, I couldn’t help but notice the silence. With hardly anyone or any animals around, the land seemed so still.
And it was the silence that affected me the most. Coming from NYC, I don’t know a world without noise. My day begins and ends with cars honking their horns outside my bedroom window. In Iceland, noise hardly exists, and that silence helps you appreciate life.
On one beautifully clear day in the north, a local guide took me to explore Game of Thrones film locations (yes, that’s a thing!). Since there was no one else on the tour, the guide took me off-road. We got out of the car and climbed a rocky hill. Below us, the ground opened up into a series of deep fissures. Around us was there was nothing but an empty plateau. Iceland expanded in all directions around us, with volcanoes and mountains in the distance. There was no sign of civilization. I sat down. The guide sat down. We were silent. All we could hear was the sound of the wind whipping around our heads. When that died down, nothing but an eerie yet peaceful silence remained.
Everything was still.
My guide and I didn’t look at each other. I suspect he was as content as I was. Throughout the day, I got the sense that he had a deep love of nature and was probably happy just sitting there.
Afterwards, I sat relaxing in the hot springs near Myvatn, and before I knew it my two-hour visit was up. I got ready to leave, thinking that time had gone by too quickly. That sums up my trip to Iceland: it went by too quickly. The 11 days I spent there were simply not enough.
As we drove home that day, my guide pointed out rocks shaped like a boat. “That’s a troll boat,” he said. “Years ago, the lake was being overfished by a troll so the locals stayed out extra late, causing the troll to forget what the hour was. Suddenly, as the sun rose, the troll raced back to her cave so she wouldn’t turn to stone. Along the way, she dropped her boat. Somewhere out there is the troll, but we haven’t found her.”
“Do you really think trolls and elves exist?” I asked.
“I think these stories teach us to respect nature. Iceland is a harsh environment, and it’s easy to spoil the land or get into danger. These stories teach us about balance. But, then again, I can’t prove these creatures don’t exist, you know? This land is special,” he replied.
He, like the other Icelanders I met who talked about the country, was right: there is something mystical and special about this place.