It’s daring, but not in the way many people think. Traveling without set plans, staying with strangers, relying on others rather than solely on yourself and your chosen guides—this is not a confrontation of the world, but facing up to yourself. I am less afraid of the evil without than I am of the gnawing within. Traveling sans hotels and itineraries means pushing yourself beyond the relative comfort of certainty into something much more. It means training your mind that things will be fine, even those beyond your control. It means that you’ll experience more than your own limited plans. It means that you allow your knowledge to be expanded by others.
I am less afraid of the evil without than I am of the gnawing within.
After taking a bus around Iceland’s Golden Circle, eating yogurt complemented by wild berries, and befriending an older Italian woman, I arrived back in Reykjavík to meet my Couchsurfing host. In my last-minute struggle to find someone to stay with, I had broken my rule of asking only females. And so I learned that casting aside some fears offers broader horizons, quite literally, through the form of my Couchsurfing host, Gummi.
We wandered around Reykjavík. Gummi asked me my future plans for my stay in Iceland. I told him the one plan I knew for sure—that I’d be flying to Akureyri—but other than that, I didn’t have much to say. I told him I’d like to go to Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands), but that it seemed logistically a bit difficult. “I haven’t been there, but I’d like to!” “Well you should go!” “I have a tent—we can go!” “Really? Yes, let’s!” And so the next morning we packed together Gummi’s camping gear, hopped in his car, and began the drive to the brand new ferry terminal of Landeyjahöfn.
Even the drive was an adventure. We stopped at a wonderful waterfall (one of many activities I would not have been able to easily do—or even had known about—if not for Gummi), and wandered behind and around it, for a little too long. And so we missed our ferry! No problem, we caught the next one.
Vestmannaeyjar is an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. Only one island, Heimaey, is inhabited, with a population of around 4,000. These islands are volcanic, actively so, and in 1973 when the volcano Eldfell erupted, the entire population had to be evacuated. Today, the deep red volcano rises above the town beside the neighboring Helgafell, in some ways an unavoidable reminder of our ultimate lack of control.
Gummi and I set up our tent at the campsite and wandered into town for dinner. And then, as it does, earth cared not for our physical comfort and the sky opened up. Cold rain drenched Gummi and I as we tried to find our way back to the campsite. Thumbs out, we hitchhiked for the first time and a pair of nice ladies dropped us off near our tent. We stood in the campsite building, drinking warm drinks, and trying to dry off. Later, we traipsed back to our leaky tent. I put on all of the clothes I could (Iceland is cold at night, even in August!), and squeezed into my borrowed sleeping bag. And then we sang. This is the beauty of unplanned travel: I’m sharing a tent with a guy I met the previous day, we’re freezing and wet, it’s late, and yet we’re comfortable and cheery enough to sing John Lennon songs together.
The next foggy morning, it was back to the ferry terminal to change our tickets yet again. We had planned to get back to Reykjavík in time for the gay pride parade that afternoon, but since our arrival in Vestmannaeyjar was later than planned, we wanted more time to explore. After stopping at a grocery store to buy some breakfast snacks, Gummi drove us around the island. We parked beneath Eldfell and began to climb. Eldfell is all red rock—grass hasn’t had time to grow since the volcano formed. Mist enshrouded us as the heat from below collided with the damp air. I sat down and to my surprise, my seat was quite hot. Gummi and I gazed out over Heimaey and the foreboding volcano on which we stood clashed with the charming harbor town and green hills below.
Gummi and I wandered about the rest of the island until it was time to leave. A statue commemorating the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavík; sheep; a bird nesting site, complete with a rope swing; rocky green Icelandic ground; sadly no puffins. And then the ferry. And then the car ride back to Reykjavík, with a stop at a geothermal electricity plant on the way. None of these things would have been possible without Gummi, and without ignoring plans and allowing myself to experience more.
Throughout the rest of my time in Iceland, my decision to forgo hotels and tours was continually reinforced. It wasn’t just that I went places I otherwise wouldn’t have been, but that I experienced them through the conduit of human openness and generosity. I could have come away excited by all of the new sights, but instead I left Iceland with that joy further compounded by the calmer strength that comes from relinquishing some control. We all have barriers and comfort zones, some of which are beneficial. But they can also become fortress walls. Traveling thus is my own reminder to keep a shield, but still remain mobile and open. How could I plan every experience, when I don’t even know what exists and with whom I could connect? There are lovely people out there, who you can learn from and share with. Start out, face yourself, and then turn to the world with others. I could sit in a warm tour bus, but I choose rain, volcanoes, and spontaneous sing-alongs.