Friday, August 19, 2016

Sun's Out, Thumb's Out

Hello! Welcome back! Well, welcome back to me, I don't know what you've been doing all summer. I've been on vacation basically all summer and I'm not even going to try to be diplomatic about it, it's been awesome. I'm going to take a small departure today from the recent theme of this blog and throw back to its roots as a space for me to share my experiences abroad. Don't worry, we'll get back to our regularly scheduled lifestyle challenges soon but today is all about travel. Feel free to ignore this post if that's not your jam.

I visited several destinations this summer but, most recently and probably most interestingly, I spent roughly 3 weeks in Iceland. It is a stunning country full of lovely people and I highly recommend it as a travel destination. It was so incredible, in fact, that I honestly don't even have the words to describe it. I'm not sure I've fully processed everything yet and I'm not even going to attempt to do so here. Instead, I am going to focus in on one piece of my trip that I think really contributed to making it such an amazing experience.

The country is an island with a main highway called the Ring Road that runs all the way around it in a big circle. The best way to see the country is by car, with the general idea being that you drive around the ring road stopping in each region and making detours all along the way. This is awesome, except that a) car rentals are super expensive and b) even if I did rent a car, it means I would be driving around by myself for 3 weeks. This is not my ideal when it comes to travel. Iceland does have a fairly extensive bus system, but they are also pretty expensive and the timing is just not what you want it to be. However, for the adventurous traveler, there is another, much more fun alternative: hitchhiking.

I know, I know, I know. Hitchhiking is dangerous. Never get in cars with strangers. (Even if they have candy...ok, especially if they have candy.) And, in this day and age, in most situations, I would agree with you. However, Iceland is a little bit of an outlier. It is an incredibly safe country, with very low crime rates and it also still has a culture of hitchhiking. People do it pretty regularly, and it's one of the only places in the world where I feel like it's safe to stick out my thumb. Which is precisely why I wanted to give it a go.

Ride, ride, ride, hitchin' a ride...
Real talk: hitchhiking is awesome and I kind of want to do it all the time. I won't, because I don't think it's actually safe in most places, but that fact makes me kind of sad. I wish that it was still a thing people could confidently do more often because it's great. It's not a perfect way to travel and it's definitely not as convenient as having your own set of wheels, but, if you are interested in meeting new people and having random adventures, it's the best way to travel. Plus, ride sharing is great for the environment and much more enjoyable than sitting on a bus.

I was pretty nervous before I started, and, honestly, it's always a little bit stressful just because it's so unpredictable. I was so unsure about how it would go initially that, the first couple times I got picked up, I almost cried because I was just so glad someone had given me a ride. It was surprisingly hard for me to stand and watch all the cars that didn't want to pick me up go by. I felt equal parts frustrated when there was clearly plenty of room in the vehicle and amused to watch people's reactions, which included waving, ignoring me, smiling and gesturing an apology (usually because their car was completely full of stuff and/or people).

My companions for a movie about Iceland's volcanic past.
What really made it worth it were the people that did pick me up. They were a pretty even mix of Icelanders and fellow travelers and I was struck again and again by their kindness and willingness to hang out with a stranger. Almost everyone at least wanted to chat, most were willing to go out of their way to make sure I got where I was going and many were happy to bring me along for an adventure. Over and over again, I was blown away by how willing people were to help me. I fully expected that people would take me as close as they could to my destination and then I would walk or hitch the rest of the way. Instead, most people were happy to drive out of their way to take me exactly where I needed to go and many offered other help as well. One woman actually drove by as I was walking toward the main road from a parking lot, reversed, and then offered me a ride before I had even started hitching. Another guy who lived locally offered me his number when he dropped me off in case I needed anything while I was in town.

There's a waterfall hiding back there.
Aside from reaffirming my faith in humanity, the best part was the people that were willing to take me along for whatever adventure they were having. I feel like almost everything I did, and certainly most of the best things, were because of the people that I met catching rides. My second ride was with a British girl about my age that was driving around the island on her own. She picked me up in the morning and together we stopped at several of the tourist spots on the way to where I was going. I ended up traveling around with her for almost a week, having all sorts of awesome adventures that I hadn't anticipated. An Icelandic couple that picked us up took us on a random hike into a canyon to find a stunning waterfall hidden in a crevice in the back. They were absolutely adorable and also enjoyed telling us about landforms in the area as we drove through (unicorn mountain was a personal favorite). A group of Icelandic and Danish gentlemen invited me to join them for a movie about the past volcanic eruptions on the island. They also picked up some Icelandic snacks they wanted me to try, waited for me while I checked into my hostel and bought me a beer while we hung out and waited for the movie to start, and then paid for my movie ticket to boot, all of which was entirely unexpected.

This trip was definitely about letting go and just rolling with the punches. I met a lot of people in lots of random ways that led to many many excellent adventures. Hitchhiking was a huge part of that. It was a very good lesson in what is possible when you let go of expectations and just let yourself be present in the current situation. My strategy of having basically no plans whatsoever really only let me down once in 3 weeks and all that happened was I spent several hours of my day waiting at a bus stop, which ended up being a great opportunity to journal. I feel like the trip was a great lesson in being open to unexpected opportunities and a reminder of how I want to live my life - focusing on being truly present and realizing that sometimes the best plans are no plans at all.

I have a hunch that at least part of what makes Iceland such a safe place for hitchhiking is related to it being a generally rural and relatively inaccessible place. Though I can't factually back that up, I couldn't help but draw a number of parallels to the more rural, agricultural areas of the Midwest. It seems to me that living "out in the country," or, in this case, on a remote fjord, tends to lend itself to developing a culture of helping and caring. In a more remote setting, supporting each other becomes an important part of making sure everyone can thrive. Regardless of the reason, I'm glad to know that such a place still exists in the world and I'm so grateful I got the chance to experience it in this way. Thank you, Iceland, for expanding my horizons, teaching me about life and just generally sharing your stunning self with me. I look forward to our next meeting.

No comments: