Iceland Diaries: Chasing Waterfalls

Tuesday, Feb. 14

Sleeping in the back of the Land Rover is what I imagine it’s like to sleep in a Japanese capsule hotel. There’s not quite enough room to sit up so you are stuck sort of propping yourself up on an elbow. In order to change your clothes, a complicated process ensued that included lying on one’s back to shimmy into pants, then sliding through the window into the front seat to put on one’s boots.

The night had been too overcast for any potential Northern Lights viewing, and the morning greeted us with soft rain. We snacked on granola bars for breakfast and got teeny cups of coffee from a gas station. I’m all for downsizing ridiculously gigantic American portions when it comes to pretty much everything except coffee. I could easily go through 3 Icelandic-sized coffees each morning, but that would cost me over $12 so I savored each sip of my little cup.

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“Where’s my precious??”

Tuesday was a day full of waterfalls, which made for a lovely scenic backdrop for Valentine’s Day. The first stop was Seljalandfoss, which is one of a series of waterfalls along a rocky ridge. We wandered up and down the road, getting closer glimpses of each set of falls. Plenty of people were out in their rain gear, taking group photos and selfies. I saw a tourist climb up a small hill to pop into a tiny cave-like opening in the rocks for a photo. Since I like to think that I am half woodland creature, I clambered up the muddy slope so Kurt could take a photo of me in the same cave. As I tried to make my way down, I lost my footing on the slippery mud and skidded the rest of the way down on my bum, sentencing myself to wearing my other (snow)pants for the rest of the road trip. In his rain jacket and waterproof pants, Kurt ventured into one of the cavernous openings and got right beneath Gljúfrafross. Changing in the Land Rover promised to be even more interesting after this outing.

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

Kurt in front of Gljúfrafross

After a brief drive, we arrived at Skógafoss, a gigantic waterfall which now also has the dubious distinction of being featured in a Justin Bieber video. We climbed the giant set of stairs to see the falls from the top to get some photos, then spent a little more time at the base of the falls. In the parking lot, Kurt was slowly backing the Land Rover out of our spot when another car suddenly honked at us. It was our friends, who had left the Airbnb a day after us for a road trip to Höfn and coincidentally pulled into the parking spot right next to us. Small world! We chatted for a bit before we continued back on our separate journeys.

By the time we reached Vík, the town at the edge of the black sand beach, visibility was practically nonexistent. A thick fog hung over the area, preventing us from being able to see much of anything. We followed another car up a steep series of switchbacks to arrive at a scenic viewpoint, but the detour was worthless as we could see nothing from what was probably a scenic vantage point (later, we deduced that we were atop the Dyrhólaey peninsula). We white-knuckled it back down the switchbacks and found another place to park and view the black sands beach and a few of the rock formations in the water.

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We had a late lunch at the Black Sand Restaurant, giving ourselves time to dry off and warm up while utilizing their wifi. The sky was already growing dark when we got back on the road, but we wanted to get some more miles in before we stopped to camp. Our plan for the next day included Glacier Lagoon, which is in southeast Iceland. Stuck as a perpetual passenger due to my lack of manual driving skills, I played DJ while Kurt navigated the wet roads in the dark. Just west of Skaftafell, we pulled over at a rest stop. According to our map, we were on a small unmarked road that led straight to Skaftafell National Park (there’s a funny story about this which I wrote about in detail for Drinkers with Writing Problems and I will entice you to click the link by mentioning it’s about a brush with death, sorta). Parked out on the open road, we got a taste for the legendary Icelandic wind that the car rental place had warned us about–the kind of gust that can damage a car door if you don’t open it cautiously with two hands. We ate sandwiches in the back of the Land Rover, drank boxed wine, and watched some Netflix shows Kurt had cached on his iPhone while the wind howled outside. Not a bad way to spend Valentine’s Day, not bad at all.

Valentine's Day dinner

Valentine’s Day dinner

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Iceland Diaries: On the Road

Monday, Feb. 13

Kurt and I woke up at 8 a.m. and repacked our backpacks, leaving our city clothes behind in the Airbnb which our friends and I had rented for the full week. We only brought along stuff we’d need for our 3-day camping road trip. Iceland was having an unseasonably warm winter, much like Chicago, with temperatures for our entire trip staying in the 40’s during the day. I left my winter coat back at home and wore my nano-puff jacket, which I layered over a wool hoodie and t-shirt. I packed my rain jacket, which could fit over all of my layers. I also brought a pair of camping pants and waterproof snow pants. For pajamas, I packed long underwear and a Thermawool base layer.

We took a cab to Kúkú Campers, the company through which we booked our rental. The cab driver was a friendly local who, upon hearing our American accents, proceeded to grill us on our thoughts on President Trump. He chuckled while listening to our moans of outrage and disbelief over what was going on back home. “I have a friend from Oakland who wants to move to Iceland,” he told us. “I told him to wait 2 years and come here as a political refugee.”

At Kúkú Campers, we checked in and got the keys to a rental Land Rover, our home for the next few nights. The team at Kúkú has an irreverent sense of humor; their business card reads “In case of emergency, use this card to wipe your ass.” Along with your camper, you can rent items both practical (sleeping bags, pillows, GPS) and recreational (guitars, surf boards), and purchase the unexpected (an ‘outdoor sex mat’ along with a map of good locations for doin’ it, with a disclaimer “P.S. This map is not intended for gingers”). The Land Rover’s back cab consisted of a folded-up bed, a seat that could be turned into a bench with storage underneath, a small cooler and butane stove, and a wall of cubbies to keep kitchen items from rolling around.

Our first stop was at a local grocery store so we could save money on meals, and picked up bread, lunch meat, plenty of Skyr, burgers, hot dogs, and snacks.  After that, our journey officially began. Instead of doing the classic Golden Circle loop, we skipped Pingvellir National Park (knowing we’d get there near the end of the trip as part of our Game of Thrones tour, but more on that later) and drove to Geysir, with a quick stop at Keriô, a volcanic crater lake.

Strokkur

Strokkur

Geysir is the inspiration for the word we use in English, ‘geyser,’ so you can say it’s OG. It’s located in an area with high geothermal activity by a few other hot springs, including Strokkur, which erupts roughly every 10 minutes and has a pretty metal name. A walkway circles each of the hot springs, and the whole area is flanked by a restaurant, parking lot, and souvenir store. It reminded me a lot of Yellowstone, both for the scenic wonder, sulfuric smell, and hordes of tourists buying overpriced sweatshirts and shot glasses.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

From Geysir, it was a quick drive to Gulfoss, another incredibly popular tourist attraction and one of the waterfalls you’d most likely recognize from photos. The Hvítá River widens and drops dramatically into a giant waterfall which from certain views, looks like it vanishes into a crack in the earth. Some legends say that Gullfoss (‘gold’ and ‘falls’ in Icelandic) got its name because of a farmer who couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else taking his gold after he died, so he locked it up in a chest and threw it down the waterfall. This would not be the first time on our trip that we’d hear an old tale of someone not wanting anyone to touch their stuff so they threw it down a waterfall, hence, many waterfalls being named after gold or discarded mistresses.

Secret Lagoon

Secret Lagoon

During our last few hours of daylight, we visited Secret Lagoon in Hvammsvegur. Secret Lagoon is a natural pool with a much more local vibe than the sprawling Blue Lagoon (though there’s still tourists aplenty). The steamy hot water was a welcome treat at the end of the day. Kurt and I waded through the pool, walking across the pebble-covered bottom to make our way closer to the bubbling hot spring just beyond that was the obvious source of heat. A few tourists in parkas stood on a path by the spring, taking photos. Light chatter in an assortment of languages filled the pool area. We soaked and watched the sunlight slowly fade, but not before creating a double rainbow in the distance.

With the last of our light, we found Airhus Restaurant in Hella, which offers a winter campground. The facilities (bathrooms, rec hall and dish cleaning station) were closed for the season, but we were allowed to park the Land Rover for free in a small grove hidden by a row of trees, creating a nice private space. After cooking burgers on our butane grill, we went inside the restaurant for a drink and to use the wifi for a bit. Right before close, we used our headlamps to find our way back to the Land Rover in the darkness. We folded down the seat to make our bed and crawled into our sleeping bags. In the tree-lined grove far from any main roads, we had our first night of outdoor solitude under the stars, just on the cusp of the Arctic Circle.

Iceland Diaries: Blue Lagoon

Sunday, Feb. 12

We slept in soundly. For most of us, it was our first full night of sleep (I probably slept the most on the plane ride out of the 7 of us, and at most I got 3 or so hours of decent sleep). We had hit the gas pretty hard on our first night out, as evidenced later when we finally began checking our online banking accounts and saw those rounds of beer add up ($70 per round, wheee!). In a stroke of perfect planning, we had booked our day at Blue Lagoon for Sunday afternoon, so we had nothing but relaxation on the agenda.

Blue Lagoon is located back by the airport, but it’s easy to set up shuttle service to and from most hotels. Our Airbnb was a 10-meter walk from a boutique hotel that became our pickup/drop-off spot for the duration of the trip, with the bonus of having an easily pronounceable name, Hotel Holt (in comparison, our street’s name consisted of 17 characters). A friend and I managed to wake up relatively early, and we ran out for coffees and yogurt (I fell in love with Skyr on this trip). Most of the group, hit by the double whammy of jet lag and hangovers, stayed in bed right up until it was almost time to go for our 3 p.m. reservation. Finally, everyone got up, shoved their bathing suits and flip flops into bags, and made their way out the door.

Blue Lagoon is pretty famous for being a tourist spot, but it’s worth a visit at least once in your life. There are geothermal pools all over the country (even the tiniest towns consisting of a gas station, grocery store, and cluster of houses had a pool), but Blue Lagoon is notable for its milky blue water, rich in minerals including silica and sulfur. If you plan to visit, make a reservation in advance (time slots fill up quickly) and be sure to check the fine print on your shuttle reservation, as your ride may show up as much as 45 minutes early depending on where your hotel is located. We opted for the middle tier option, Comfort, which included silica and algae masks, a free drink, and a towel.

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took a gamble and brought my phone into the pool for a quick selfie

It was drizzling cold rain when we arrived. Our group consisted of two women and five men, so we split up into our locker rooms. I lost my friend at some point near the showers, so I entered the Lagoon area on my own. I walked onto the deck in my swimsuit in 40 degrees and light rain, and beelined into the warm water. It was heaven.

Within a few minutes, our group reassembled and waded over to the bar. Upon check-in, you are given a wrist band that keeps track of any food or drinks you purchase during your stay. I opted for the prosecco for my free drink (you are limited to 3 drinks per wristband for safety reasons). One of our friends struck up a conversation with a lifeguard, who shared some stories about recent celebrity visitors (Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Justin Bieber have all been to Blue Lagoon recently). The lifeguard tower overlooking the pool had a giant windshield wiper that would periodically clear the glass window.

After soaking for hours, checking out the sauna, and applying our silica and algae masks, we were ready to board a shuttle bus back to Reykjavík. To save some money, most of the group walked to a grocery story to get food we could prepare at the Airbnb. Sunday night was a much calmer affair, as we rested up for our next adventure. The next morning, Kurt and I would begin our Iceland road trip and leave the city behind.

 

Iceland Diaries: Arrival in Reykjavík

It’s impossible to visit Iceland and not fall in love with it. Kurt and I, along with 6 of our good friends, just came back from an 8-day trip on the northern Atlantic island nation, and I can’t stop thinking about it. With a few more friends planning upcoming trips and asking for advice, I figured I’d write up my travel diaries so I can keep my notes in one easy-to-access place.

Friday, Feb. 10/Saturday, Feb. 11

Our flight left O’Hare on Friday night at 6:30 p.m., and landed in Reykjavík the next morning at 6:35 p.m. We also learned shortly before our departure that the night of Feb. 10 would also see a full moon, lunar eclipse, and a comet passing close to Earth. Given these unusual circumstances lining up together, I joked that we’d have Outlander-esque conditions lined up to accidentally travel through time and arrival in feudal Iceland, to which my friend replied “Geothermal Tub Time Machine?”

We tried to get some decent sleep on the plane, and landed in Rekjavík without incident or unexpected time travel. First things first, we followed the advice of our Airbnb host and stocked up on beer, wine, and booze at the airport Duty Free. We had been warned that alcohol in Reykjavík is extremely expensive, and we could get it for nearly half the price at the airport, which is something even the locals do.  Afterwards, we took a Flybus (roughly $20 in USD per person, a pretty good deal) for the 50-minute drive from the airport to the Reykjavík bus terminal. Our Airbnb wasn’t ready until 2 p.m., so we stowed our luggage in the large lockers at the bus terminal, which were roomy enough to fit 2 fully packed bags, or house a down-on-his-luck muppet.*

Reykjavík

Reykjavík

We walked into town, and kicked off our trip by taking the elevator to the top of the bell tower of Hallgrimskirkja, a cathedral. It offered one of the best views of all of Reykjavik and was a nice way to start our day. Afterwards, we got coffee and a traditional breakfast across the street at Cafe Loki. I picked a sampler plate and gave the fish paste on toast and sheep’s head jelly a whirl (mostly because I wasn’t entirely sure what I ordered). I’m a pretty adventurous eater and finished most of my plate.

img_0159After walking around a bit and checking out some shops, we picked our bags up from the bus terminal and checked into our Airbnb. Our house was conveniently located just a few blocks from all of the bars and restaurants on Laufásvegur. Even with 7 people, the house was roomy and comfortable. A few people napped while the rest of us sampled our Icelandic beers in the kitchen. We weren’t that into the Viking Light, so we’d have to give Viking Hev** a shot later.

Once everyone woke up, showered, and assembled themselves, we had our first group dinner at Vegemót Bistro Bar. Just as we’d been warned, it’s pretty impossible to get a meal in Rekjavík for less than $25-30, even a burger and fries. Beers are an additional $12-14. The flash sales on IcelandAir may convince you that Iceland will be an affordable vacation spot, but once you land, it’s an entirely different story. At least dinner was good. We followed up with drinks at Ölstofan, which reminded me of the Ukrainian Village bar scene circa 2002. Memories get murkier after we moved on to Bar Ananas, a tiki bar where Icelandic rappers happened to be performing. Outgoing Americans that we are, we chatted with a few locals including one performer who I decided to call “Icelandic Justin Timberlake” for the rest of the night (it was the hair). After many rounds of Einstok, we staggered back to the Airbnb to catch up on an overdue full night of sleep.

*Who doesn’t love a Great Muppet Caper reference?

**similar to Bud Hev

Hello 2017

Oh 2016, you started with taking David Bowie and ended with us all feeling second-hand embarrassment for Mariah Carey. You ran our emotions through a meat grinder (I started reading The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher today and couldn’t get through the first 2 pages without tearing up). You gave us a sentient Cheeto who live-tweets every one of his temper tantrums and made him our President-elect. Looking ahead to this fresh new year, I may be crazy but I’m hopeful. Maybe it’s because 2017 still has that new car smell, or maybe it’s because I love making New Year resolutions as an opportunity to set goals that I’m excited about. I was successful in all of my 2016 resolutions except for one (to start a Twitter parody account, but that was a silly one anyways and I became too busy handling social media for Drinkers with Writing Problems). I also managed to hit a big goal that I hadn’t spelled out for myself, which was to pay off my credit card debt by the end of the year.

My resolutions for 2017:

  • do a sugar detox for the month of January. Diabetes runs rampant in my family and I have a weakness for pastries, chocolate, and ice cream. I’m taking a month off to break the habit and make better decisions about what I eat.
  • carve out at least 3 hours a week for writing. Don’t beat myself up when Life takes over, but don’t make easy excuses for myself either. I want to finish the first draft of the new novel I’m currently working on before next New Year’s Eve.
  • return to yoga and start a mindful meditation practice.
  • start putting more money into savings, which should be easier now that I paid off my credit cards.
  • seize opportunities at work to expand my role and branch out into new responsibilities.

It goes without saying that in 2017, I will appreciate all of the many things in my life that I’m super grateful for: my incredible family and friends, the many adventures I share with my husband and best friend, my home, my health, and every morning I get to wake up and seize another day.

 

 

New York


The line outside the bar was one-in-one-out. My friend and I huddled in the December wind on a street in New York’s West Village, waiting for enough patrons to exit so we could be let inside. The bar was a half level below the sidewalk, and piano music and raucous singing drifted through the window near our feet. It was around 10 p.m. We had spent the day doing other vacation-y things: brunch in Brooklyn, visiting the New Museum where locals took selfies to a whole new level, cocktails in a speakeasy hidden off of a hot dog joint in St. Marks Place. Now, we were here–waiting to get into a packed-to-capacity piano bar that solely played Broadway show tunes. As the line inched forward, we made our way to the front and then inside. The small, packed bar area exploded with sound; a full capacity bar was singing at the tops of their lungs “How we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… LAST YEAR’S RENT?!”

I grew up worshipping MGM musicals with the same fervor my classmates had for hair bands; Gene Kelly was my Brett Michaels. In high school, I found my Happy Place when I was cast in my first real musical (outside of a grade school production called In Quest of Columbus where I played the railing of the Santa Maria).  While my all-girls Catholic high school in a north Chicago suburb was hardly the setting of Fame, I had at least found a place among the teenagers whose CD collections were dominated by original cast recordings. When people learned my name was Kim, they typically responded by blurting back Miss Saigon lyrics: “I have a heart like the seeeeaaa…… A million dreams are in meeeeee!”

img_9656At Marie’s Crisis Cafe, I was once again among my people. It’s hard to explain the power of music, the way it creates a sense of community and gives a venue full of people a shared–at times transcendent–experience. Hedwig sang it best: “All the misfits and the losers, well you know you’re rock and rollers, spinning to your rock and roll…” In the packed bar, regulars mixed in with tourists; a decent amount of patrons appeared to still be wearing stage makeup from earlier in the night. Most of the crowd recognized a song from the first few chords, and the energetic vocals from the pianist helped the stragglers catch up. There were enough professionals and music buffs present to break out into harmonies, fill in the backup chorus, and interject lines of dialogue. We broke out into goofy grins and joyous laughter each time we recognized a song, then dove right into belting it out along with everyone else. It was impossible to be unhappy in a place like this, where even the most jaded New Yorker wasn’t too cool to sing “Little Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in public. We tore through numbers from Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Mary Poppins, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Oklahoma, Les Miserables, Showboat, and A Chorus Line while throwing back cheap domestic beers in the cramped tavern. We sang until 3 a.m., when we reluctantly called it a night and caught the subway back to our rented apartment. With the piano playing on in my head, I thought back to all those nights on the stage, with pancake makeup on my face and my feet crammed into character shoes, finding my joy through music and performing. A million dreams are in me.

 

 

Thoughts on November 10

This is pretty much a brain dump, so bear with me.

It’s been a rollercoaster of a week. On Monday evening, I went to an early voting polling place near my house on the northwest side of Chicago. After the moment I touched the screen to pick Hillary’s name, I paused and let myself savor the small but historic moment. Tears gathered in my eyes.

It would be the first of many, many times I’ve cried this week, and the only time that the tears were happy.

Yesterday, we woke up to confirmation that many peoples’ worst nightmare came true. I cried for multitudes of reasons, among them being that the horrific racism and xenophobia we’ve witnessed over the course of the campaign season had won. I cried because it was a perfect example of why so few women report their sexual assaults: they get called liars while the men who perpetrate these crimes get away with it (or get elected president). I know that people had their reasons for voting who they voted for, but I cried because they were willing to overlook the fact that minorities, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, Muslim Americans, and all other marginalized groups would suffer because of how they marked their ballot. Everything felt broken on multiple levels.

I don’t want to write any further about the election itself because it’s all been said by people much more eloquent than me. But I do want to share what I did to get through the ugliness of yesterday and how I managed to find some catharsis and even joy. I connected with my people through texts, Facebook, Twitter, and secret discussion groups where we all felt like we could be safe to share our feelings without someone chiming in to pick an ugly fight while our feelings were so raw. You can rail on the concept of social media all you want, but yesterday, it was my salvation.

And through social media, we made a plan to go out and sing karaoke together. I arrived at the bar first, and as my friends walked in, we all began to cry again, but we were able to give each other much-needed hugs. Then we all began to sing. Lyrics took on whole new meanings under the circumstance of events, and we laughed-cried, shouted the words together, and danced.

“We are strong, no one can tell us we’re wrong, searching our hearts for so long, love is a battlefield”

“Soul, I hear you calling, oh baby please give a little respect to me”

“Oh I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite, so don’t let me have any rights. Oh, I’ve had it up to here”

It was emotional and loud and cathartic and exactly what we all needed. Shit may have just gotten very, very real, but I will always be able to turn to music to help me cope. When you’re several beers into the night and running the mic on a divey karaoke place with people you love, playing air guitar and drunk-wailing “Don’t Stop Believing,” you can remember that there is joy to be found in this world.

I see others using pop culture to cope: gifs of Harry Potter’s friends raising their wands in solidarity, or the people of District 12 raising their hands saluting the Mockingjay, or photos of Mal from Firefly with the caption “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.” I see people turning to literature and poetry: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Art is our place of solace, or our battle cry, or a voice for the voice we need when we’ve lost our own. Art is important. Even Pat Benatar.