I have been traveling to Iceland for fifteen years, twelve with the same group of horse-loving women friends. I have seen Iceland go from a little known nation to a bucket list global tourist mecca. If people knew of it, they knew it as the “stopover country” en route to Europe, similar to how coastal Americans pejoratively consider the middle of the US as the “flyover states”. True, some people knew Iceland for its burgeoning Reykjavik music scene and attendant party scene. And Björk made her American debut in 2001 teetering out on the Oscar stage in her fluttering swan costume. And if you were really in the know, you knew who Sigur Rós was.
But in 2001, when I had this notion of going to Iceland and I could not lure anyone to accompany me, neither family nor friend, I went alone. I signed up for a week-long horse trek with sleeping bag accommodations: seven days in the saddle, riding in a desolate peninsula jutting into the Greenland Sea. When I told people of my plans, I got two reactions: either newfound admiration, as if I had joined an Explorers’ Club, or they dismissed me, as my cousin did: “That sounds like hell. Why would anyone do that?”
Then there was this reaction: In the airport van going to JFK when I told a fellow passenger, a tough and muscled young man heading to Delray Beach, I was going to Iceland, he blurted out, “What and where the f*** is that?”
All this was fifteen years ago. I’m sure even the Delray Beach guy knows what and where the f*** Iceland is.
Last year nearly 1.8 million people visited the island―about five times more tourists than citizens. I read with dismay about tourists defecating in public parks; driving SUVs on fragile glaciers; being swept away in the waves at Reynisfjara; needing ICE-SAR rescues at astronomical expense; building cairns where cairns shouldn’t be. Videos are now circulating on the internet, instructing tourists how to shower before entering a hot pot: yes, prudes, you need to take off your clothes to wash yourself clean. Some worry the country runs the risk of being an adventure Disneyland. There are spelunking trips, snorkeling tours in the chasm of the continental shelf, monster truck trips on glaciers, Game of Throne tours (okay I might join that one). But I also read that Icelanders welcome tourists and the obvious upside of tourism: an economy bolstered with dollars and pounds and yen. Hotels are fully booked in January for June. Lonely Planet Iceland is on the best seller list. It’s fair to say Icelanders are enjoying their day in the sun, and maybe even their fifteen minutes of Kardashian fame.
My friends and I like to say either you get Iceland or you don’t. And we have prided ourselves on getting Iceland back in the days no one knew where it was. For us it was a remote but civilized culture that mixed tradition and modernity. Women could travel alone anywhere and feel safe from human predators. Even down at the wharves carrying a Longchamp’s bag full of krónur, I strolled at night and knew no harm would come to me. We were never hassled. Even when we walked into shops, no one bothered us. There was none of the “Can I help you?” passive/aggressive servitude of sales help. The attitude was more “if you want to buy that, I’ll ring it up for you.” Most of the time, we were blissfully ignored.
There was a freedom we found in Iceland. English was spotty in the rural areas and we liked it that way. We could ride horses for hours and not see another soul nor a single car, tree, or most importantly as riders, animal predators to spook a horse. The northern landscape spoke to us―the treeless vistas with the sky so big you could see the earth’s curve. We became close friends with a few Icelanders and they took us off the beaten path. Our knowledge felt privileged. We were being shown a quiet corner of earth in an otherwise noisy, overpopulated world. Part of Iceland’s quirky charm was that it wasn’t aware of itself. It had no reputation to live up to. It wasn’t exactly open for business. We got Iceland. We just didn’t think so many others would get Iceland.
I’m an opinionated tourist after all these years. I’m not an Iceland romantic. When I read it was voted the friendliest country last year, I thought, c’mon, who rigged that survey? I find Icelanders reticent, their friendships hard-earned, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I am not into cute Iceland. Those adorable puffins may end up on your plate. Even a horse can. A farmer once told me the old adage about horses, “If it isn’t a winner, its dinner.” As much as I love horses and would never eat one, I know farmers can’t afford bad horses. But watch out: I get extremely tetchy when those spirited horses are called cute shaggy ponies.
And I freely admit that every June when I land in Reykjavík and the cold rain pelts me as I run from the FlyBus to the smaller bus at the BSI station, I wonder what I’m doing here. For the cost of going to Iceland, I could have funded three vacations on a warm beach in any hemisphere.
My husband is joining me in Iceland for the first time this summer. I vacillate between telling him, you’re gonna love it, and um, don’t expect too much. Sometimes I imagine him turning to me with the long attenuated shadows of the midnight sun in front of us and saying, aha I see what you see here, I see why you love it. Alternatively, I can see him scratching his week-old vacation beard, his eyes red from insomnia and all the sunlight, and asking, really... you come here every year? It doesn’t matter. I don’t hold it against people if they don’t get Iceland. It’s like a pheromone attraction: either it ignites those chemical senses or it doesn’t. But having him travel with me will afford me the opportunity to see Iceland through new eyes, albeit with another expected 1.7 million other tourists.
On my first trip to Iceland, I tipped the taxi driver who dropped me off at a Reykjavík guesthouse. She was a stout, middle-aged woman who seemed annoyed with me. She held out her palm with the krona in it and said something in Icelandic to me. Being American, I thought I hadn’t tipped her enough and she was displeased. But then she thrust the extra tip money at me and took off muttering to herself. Later I was told by an American student living in Iceland that you don’t tip Icelanders; they are paid enough and they do not see themselves as servants. It’s an egalitarian thing.
I’m not sure that is the case anymore. I have been told that tips are somewhat, sort of, expected from tourists, especially in the summer when much of the hired help is foreign ―they don’t come from countries with an egalitarian ethos. And though I haven’t yet seen tip jars in coffee shops, that doesn’t mean they are not coming.
Change is accelerating in Iceland, as it is all over. I used to go to Iceland to get away from the world. Now the world has come to Iceland. Am I nostalgic for the Iceland of fifteen years ago? I have no right to be. It’s not my country. But nostalgia isn’t a right; it’s a lamentation for a lost golden age (if 15 years ago can qualify as lost or golden).
The map of Iceland still excites me. (Why is that?) I look at towns I haven’t been to and roll the place names in my mouth: Ísafjörður, Grundarfjörður... they sound remote. Remote enough, that perhaps I won’t run into a group of preening, posing twenty-year-old American tourists with selfie sticks.
So I keep coming back every year, to see what I can see, to note the changes, to visit Icelandic friends, to ride the spirited horses, to recharge my body in the 24 hours of sunlight, and if at all possible anymore, to piss off an Icelandic cab driver by tipping her.
Tory Bilski writes Icelandica, an experiential travel blog about her yearly visits to Iceland. Her home is Connecticut.