Having No Plan is the Plan (Leaving to Travel for 5 Months)

I take my first steps outside, into a cool, quiet, gray dawn, after a 10 hour flight across Canada and Greenland, just skirting the Arctic Circle, to land in the tiny Reykjavik airport.

Iceland sunshine

I laugh, I’m in Iceland, in June…in flip-flops. I say a quick prayer of thanks to my travel gods that the fur-lined parkas of airport staff, guiding the plane in, were just for show as my warm clothes were tossed out early on (as I rushed to pack my little orange backpack for a five month trip, a few minutes before locking up my little garden house on Findlay Street) in favor of light-weight layers and a “if-I-need-anything-else-I’ll-buy-it” attitude. I collapse onto the cushioned seat of the bus, sipping the best fast-food latte I’ve ever tasted (and yes, there is a separate scale for non-cafe travel coffee: and in the first sip I can tell this is WAY better than that Taiwan airport latte…but then maybe I’m just tired and can’t tell the difference anymore. Weeks of coffee class training later, I can definitely tell its origin is not Sulawesi or Yirgacheffe or any of the other places I’m dying to visit…but something less exotic, something like the isle of “instant”).

I look around, I’m surrounded by “my people”: tourists laden with cameras, maps, comfortable shoes and curiosity. And, I realize for right now I am genuinely grateful every last person has “someone else” to collaborate with…which leaves me to savor some much-desired quiet solitude of my morning in Iceland, on my way to Amsterdam, which is on my way to France, which is on my way to Turkey, which is on my way to…

“Those green pipes. See that green? There, now. See? There! What must those be for? Grain? Water? I just don’t know WHAT it could be…” She muses loudly, across the aisle, to her partner. His lack of response, ironically, prompts more early-morning speculation of the utterly obvious. “Ohhhhhhh, it says water. But I wonder how that works…” While he’s trapped by her side, I slip on earbuds and let iPhone shuffle take over. Case and point, I’m happy to to travel alone today.

And, as if knowing my mood and my geographic coordinates (which sometimes I believe iPhone shuffle knows better than me…), it picks the quiet Ameliana Torrieni song, “Sunny Road.” Icelandic. Sweet, soft, simple. Lyrics that are both forward and backward looking, at one time. It’s appropriate on so many levels, as I’ve felt my head and heart perpetually being tugged in simultaneous directions these last few weeks, equally close to smiles and nervous tears at all times. And never so much as the night before flying out as adored friends & family gathered in my living room, to see me off. To what? I shrug when they ask. I have no idea. I have no plan. And that is my plan. And I remind my task-driven head again, as it searches in vain for its purpose, that there is none, right now. There is nothing more than just going, seeing, living, being in the world — for me — right now, and see where it leads. I began mapping it out last summer: starting with the places I’d always dreamed of going and made up my mind to do this now. It’s evolved into places that pull at me most, for one reason or another (as little as a photo or a word or feeling) and sometimes for absolutely no reason at all — but, there is no common thread tying my travel plans, or my life, together, at this moment. Just one step and then another. An idea to do some thing different. But what? I don’t know. childhood dreams, perhaps?It’s sometimes terrifying, for the well-planned person I’ve trained myself to be. But it’s also terribly exciting. Like untying one anchor at a time, watching it drift away, only to move to the next, and untie. I’m starting to wonder, now that I’ve started, will I ever stop? I honestly have no idea. I have no idea what will come next. Except for this little dream of what I hope it to be.

And it flutters through my mind, like the monarch butterflies with the delicate, stained glass wings, I used to watch when I was a four years old in Los Angeles. Now I’m 31, in Iceland for an afternoon, with my “office” and a camera in my backpack, on a tourist bus that trundles on, down deserted, quiet roads. As my neighbors pour over maps and books, I can’t take my eyes from the enormity of the rocky landscapes sliding by. Smoke-blue-black basalt monoliths. Dramatic, earthy creatures pushed from the ground towards the sky, stacks of rock, carved by deep, rugged fissures. All is chaotically thrusted from volcanic soil in such a way that it’s easy to see how “alive” this landscape must have been thousands of years before my arrival. Now, it’s as if someone pressed “pause” and once smoldering, molten rock now sits in half-motion, holding the most treacherous positions for lifetimes, decaying only enough to allow a small pool of thin grass or silver-blue lupine to collect between a carpet of lichen-like mossy stuff, a gray-green carpet with a fairytale thick, lushness that would make Bob Ross proud (“Happy moss, here and here and here…”). This is what stretches for miles and miles of treeless land until it disappears in a dying morning fog and watery sun shadows.

And it’s that distant horizon I’m hurtling towards.

… Og Borg til Flugvallar (…and City to Airport)

The three lane highway is utterly deserted. I leave the bus terminal with map in hand and set off to explore this new land. There is absolutely no one around. Shops and cafes are shuttered. Reykjavik is deserted. Sleep deprived after the long flight, I check my phone again. It’s 9am. There is seriously no one around. Every so often I see another soul…but shortly after I see their map, and their pack which tells me they’re anotherearly-morning tourist. The only other sounds are of the one or two street cleaners, hosing down the sidewalks of late night debris.

I end up chatting with a couple from Boston, we share tourist chit-chat and jokes, we navigate to the Hallgrimskirkja church. Sitting on top of a treeless hill, it towers above the street, like another rocky volcanic structure, its tiered sides of concrete push against a cotton-puff sky. The views are breathtaking.

Eventually we split up. They go off to find breakfast and I set off to take some pics, my time is short and I want to see all I can. I wander through streets with names like Hateigsvegur and Skolavordustigur. Neat, orderly houses, sided in corrugated metal of all shades of color, each with a little garden or ornate gate, line pristine streets. Despite the “early” hours, I see not a single homeless person in the corner. Despite the intensely graffiti’d parks and alleys I pass through, I feel not the least bit of unease.

Still no one, no sign of an operational coffee shop. I hear echoes of music. Then realize her calling to me. “Haloooo, Haloooo”

She’s standing in the middle of the road, barefoot, bleached blond hair hanging on her shoulders, tight jeans and loose white shirt…and a glass of champagne in one one hand as the other hand waves to me.

“You? Hey! You! Cigaretto?” she makes the universal sign for smoking. “Cigaretto”

I laugh, sorry no….

Before I can say anything else, she’s immediately dismissed me with the wave of a tan hand and pads up the street, already waving down the next person. “Halooooo….You?….” Champagne glass, daintily, in hand.

A little after 11am the colorful little city starts to yawn and wake up. I start to see movement. I try the door to the first cafe I see with a person manning the counter. But the door is locked, 10 more minutes, he mouths.

I laugh. Oh, this would never do in my Seattle-world! Finally, I find coffee, and just about every other one of my bus-tourist friends. I eat the most amazing apple pastry and settle in for people watching, as my head starts to spin with incoming jet-lag as the day slowly warms to comfortable t-shirt weather. And slowly the streets fill with trendy Icelandic families, mothers pushing the cutest children in the cutest old-fashioned strollers as SUVs with the largest tires I’ve ever seen, advertise island adventures, as they parade through tiny streets.

I get a text and email confirming Henrie will be waiting for me in Amsterdam. I’m renting Henrie’s flat (clean, broadband wired, and without elevator) for two weeks after finding it on craigslist, it sounds fantastic, but who knows what it will be…all I know is how it’s worked before, Indonesia, New Orleans, Mexico…

I leave with an hour to find my way back to the bus terminal outside the city, get lost, get helped by a man in a store who speaks “not good” English (and yet when I attempt to pronounce Islenska words, I send him into gales of laughter…apparently I speak “not good” Islenska, we agree!), I find my way back to Fjoiugata and Smaragata Streets and finally, back to Vathsmyarvegur (a long word that means nothing, but where the terminal is) only to miss my bus, wait out the next one while snacking on a meat pastry and a Coke–shreds of cured meat between a lefsa-like tortilla. I can’t pronounce the name, but I’m starving and it’s delicious.

As I leave I wonder what it was, but in a rush to catch my bus, all I see if the store’s logo: a rotund cartoon chef with a cartoon platter, on which rests, a smiling cartoon goat head. Yes, smiling! As my own stomach does backflips over something in this unexpected visual, I have fond flashbacks of Christine arriving in Indonesia that first day and introducing her to her first “kambing on a stick”…

Before I jump into the tiny Reykjavik airport, to Amsterdam, I pause to take my last gulp of cool Arctic air and giggle, one last time: I’m in Iceland, in June…in flip-flops.