Backpacking Europe

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Just a change of clothes and we’ll be ready to go!

My sister, Jen, and I are about to start a bit over a month long backpacking trip through Europe. We’re flying Southwest to New York to catch Norwegian Air to Norway and then Ryan Air to Alicante, Spain. We plan to spend 5 weeks going through Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and hopefully a trip to
Iceland somewhere in there.

As we’ve been preparing and continue to do so, I’m reminded of how stressful it can be. But also how much fun. My sister has never been backpacking before and so it is great showing her how to pack only what is necessary. She’s also started going for a few mile walks everyday with her fully packed backpack to start strengthening her body for it. I maintain my philosophy: binge watch TV and eat whatever, hit the road and feel like I want to die, and get used to it again. Anyone else do that?

We are leaving at the beginning of February and so we have to prepare for the winter (very different from the Floridian climate we’re used to!) This means extra layers, boots, and weight overall. Since we plan to camp when we can’t find a CouchSurfing host (comment below if you’d like to meet up or host us at some point!), we have the additional weight of camping gear.

Luckily, we almost have everything we need for the trip and our packs come out to a decent 18LB’s each. We shouldn’t reach above 20 with the last bit of items we need and then it’s only the added weight of food and water. When you realize how little you actually need, life can become so easy, free of worry and stress. And weight.

Of course, this trip is going to be a lot different from my others, I’ve traveled with groups for a day or two here and there, but I could always do whatever I wanted and leave at any point. I’ve also traveled in the winter, but now I’ll have a full time companion who I will have to be considerate of. Where does she want to go, what is she comfortable doing or not doing, will we have to make an unexpected stop at a store to buy some “ladies products”?

This will be different.

Normally, I hitchhike everywhere, Spain to Rome? No problem! But now, for obvious reasons, my sister is a bit anxious about the idea of hitch hiking so much, and we may end up taking buses, which will obviously hurt the budget goal. If we do, we’ll be trying to get night buses to use as our accommodation as well as transportation.

While I’ve never hitchhiked with anyone before, I hope I’ll be able to get her to do it… Maybe I’ll hide behind a tree or something while she flashes her leg and waves to try to catch a ride. Maybe she’ll meet her future husband that way (Hint hint guys, this lovely lady is available and on the prowl, but check out what is taught at Godsavemymarriage.com first to see if you qualify.)

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I also have to take into consideration her body heat. Women generally get a lot colder than men, and just because I feel like we’d be fine going for a hike in the Swiss Alps in the midst of winter, she might feel like we, or at least, she, will probably die. Or if I want to wild camp in a city, but am having trouble finding a concealed spot where I can sleep without being bothered, she probably won’t be willing to sleep under a bridge to avoid having to pay for a room or bunk.

Although this is going it be different from my normal travels and as much as I love traveling solo, I am very excited for this new experience. I may have to give up some of the key things that allow me to travel on such a shoestring budget as $15 or less per day, but it will help me in life and prepare me to travel with my wife once we’re married in December, WOOT WOOT!

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A week in the Land of Fire and Ice

I am convinced that Iceland is one of the top five most beautiful countries in the world. It’s vast landscape varying from incredible mountains, about 130 volcanoes, to glaciers and plains of nothing. Its Hekla Volcano is the place where Director Ridley Scott chose to use as his planet in the “darkest corners of the universe” in his film “Prometheus.” I had the pleasure of spending 8 days there in early April 2015 and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had.

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I arrived at the airport in Reykjavik and it didn’t take too long before I found a local waiting to pick up his girlfriend who happened to fly in on my flight. I sat down a seat a away from him and started talking to him, told him that I was hoping to find someone heading toward the city and he said as long as it was okay with his girlfriend, I could ride with them as far as they were heading. I caught a second ride that took me into the city and started exploring.

It wasn’t long until Iceland’s weather started showing itself and there was a full out hail blizzard. For about ten minutes. Then it was decent, only snow flurries and a bit of wind. I even saw some blue in the sky instead of grey clouds. The saying goes, “If you like the weather in Iceland, wait 10 minutes,” and it’s true, ten minutes later, the hail storm was back.

I ended up staying in a hostel my first night to avoid the weather. I met a group of travelers from all over and hung out with them. We ended up being a group of five and since the beginning of April is the end of the Aurora season, went hunting for a dark spot to try to see the lights. It reminded me why I do not like traveling in groups, decisions are so slow to be made. The hunt was unsuccessful.

þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

The following night I was scheduled to couch surf with a local, Petur, and his son for a couple of nights. It was absolutely great, the Icelandic people are so kind and welcoming. He took me to a local thermal pool, a much more budget-friendly version of the Blue Springs that everyone raves about. I didn’t see the point in spending about six times as much when the local thermal pools are where the locals are. It was very relaxing, indoor and out, different pools of different temperatures, depths, it had jets and even a water slide. He prepared traditional snacks and a “filler” dinner, a kind of rice pudding that I enjoyed, but Iceland isn’t known for it’s food, so it wasn’t something to write home about. He introduced me to his vinyl collection and I listened to his album “Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens about fifty times. On my second night with him, I used his spare key to go watch the night sky in hopes of seeing the lights. The forecast was unusually high and I was lucky enough to be able to lay out under the stars and watch the Lights dance across the sky for a few hours before I became too sleepy and returned to the apartment.

Petur told me that he believed that in the country side, I could knock on a few doors and about half of the locals would open their doors to me and invite me in for a night, so after my two nights with him, I set out to hitch hike the famous Golden Ring Route and spend my nights in random locals homes. I received two rides with locals before I arrived at my first destination; Þingvellir National Park. During one of my rides, the woman let me see how the locals view nature. She told me about the mountain on the opposite side of the harbor from Reykjavik. She told me that “She” was wearing her White Dress and that she must have an extraordinary closet because throughout the year she wears so many different dresses filled with so many different colors. Many believe in invisible elves, trolls, and other creatures. It’s just another reason why I love this country.

Geysir

Here at the Þingvellir National Park is where I met Shaniece, a awesome person and the best police woman I’ve ever met. She was from Virginia and was traveling for the first time by herself. We had the same plan, so I was able to catch a ride with her. We ended up spending four incredible days together. We continued on the route and came across some Icelandic horses, stopped to try to pet them and met a couple of ladies from Los Angeles, Danielle and Laura. Danielle is the stage director of Marvel on Ice and helped produce the awesome Power Rangers Reboot while Laura is an editor at Playboy. Having been a huge Power Rangers fan growing up, I was a bit star-struck. We met up with the two again at the next stop, the geothermal area that contains the famous “Geysir” and “Strokkur,” and the four of us became fast friends. Geysir erupts hot water into the air up to 100ft every 10 minutes or so and is where our word “geyser” comes from. We continued onto our final stop in the Golden Ring, the Gulfoss Waterfall with the ladies in tow.

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Danielle and Laura returned to Reykjavik for the rest of their trip while Shaniece and I continued onto the village of Vik, population about 200, where Shaniece had booked her hotel. We spent two nights here and this is where my hopes of finding kind locals would come in. After exploring the beach and agreeing on what time to meet up in the morning, Shaniece and I parted for the night. I went knocking on the doors of the village. The fifth person to answer their door was an older local lady, Lara, she was home alone, her husband wasn’t going to be home for a few hours, but to my delightful surprise, she almost instantly said yes and showed me to the spare bedroom downstairs.

Lara was so kind. I came upstairs to ask about the bed covers and she offered me crackers and hot chocolate. She made me the best home made hot chocolate you could imagine, I had never seen anyone make it with a bar of chocolate and milk, it was amazing. We talked for about an hour. She told me about her daughter, Doctor in Sweden, her son, a fisherman, and her career as a elementary school teacher. She was retired and about to go visit her daughter. She told me that she wished she could have traveled more when she was young, but ended up getting married and having a family, so she was unable to. I felt bad she hadn’t been able to travel as much as she’d wanted to and I hope I’ll be able to make my reader’s travel dreams come true. Lara was even more optimistic about the locals welcoming spirits than Petur, she felt 3/4 people would welcome someone into their home rather than Petur’s estimate 1/2.

Sadly, at least in Vik, tourists are ruining this culture. The next night, I heard a very opposite view. The seventh door I knocked on was the home of Aran and his wife Eva, two local police officers. When I asked Aran if they would welcome me into their home for the night, he went and discussed it with Eva, and I heard her say Couch Surfing. I informed them that I am a Couch Surfer and that made them feel confident enough to invite me in. We talked for about an hour or so before it got too late. They had once had an account to host, but were immediately overwhelmed by the vast amount of requests they received and ended up closing the account. They informed me that at one point, it was true, nearly anyone would let a traveler stay with them for a night rather than be left outside in the cold, but tourism has grown so fast that it has become common for the hotel and hostel in the village to fill up, even in the off season, so many people come to their doors knocking. On top of this, tourists walk onto local’s lawns and look into their homes as if they’re at a museum. The locals are becoming jaded. We must respect property and privacy if we want to even hope for locals to be kind and welcoming.

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Shaniece and I at Jökulsárlón,

During the second day with Shaniece, we made a long trip to Jökulsárlón, an amazing glacier bay where we got to walk on the most idyllic glaciers. We got extremely lucky, during our two days in the South, we experienced really good weather for Iceland at that time, while Danielle and Laura were suffering grey skies, rain storms, and roads being shut down due to the weather. After Jökulsárlón, we finished our day off with a trip to the Skaftafell National Park to see Svartifoss, or Black Waterfall.

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Svartifoss, AKA Black Waterfall

When we returned to Vik and I found Aran and Eva to spend the night with, I was given an awesome offer. Eva was going to the local horse stables in the morning where they kept their horses and asked if Shaniece and I would like to ride. Horseback riding is a big attraction, Icelandic horses are unique, very cute, and it has been illegal for any horse to enter Iceland for over 130 years to preserve its genetic purity. That includes any horse that has left the country from re-entering. With a bit of struggle, I woke Shaniece up and off we went to meet Eva.

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On our way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at a few places we’d wanted to on the way to Vik but didn’t have time to. We went to Reynisfjara first, AKA Black Sand Beach, where there are rock formations similar to the Black Waterfall’s formations. We struggled but succeeded to find a crashed airplane from years ago that the government decided to leave. We saw multiple more waterfalls including the huge Skogafoss fall and finished off our tour with the frozen Kerið Crater Lake. The GPS took us down a wrong road and we ended up walking through woods and foot high snow to find the fenced back entrance. Someone inside told us we had to go around and pay to enter, but we decided it would be easy enough just to go through the fence, and who would know?

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After our final stops, we made it back to Reykjavik for my final day and Shaniece’s last couple. We kept in touch with Danielle and Laura and ended up meeting up with them at a bar for trivia. Danielle was meeting up with an old friend of her boss who had been living in Iceland for the past 10 years after falling in love with a local. He owned an acting school and is a radio host. He ended up winning the trivia and treating The ladies and I to drinks with his winnings. He was also a couch surfing host and ended up spending the night with his girlfriend and allowed me to stay in his home for the night. We also met another couple of awesome people and we all hung out well past the end of trivia. It was a great night.

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The next day, I started hitch hiking to the airport to catch my flight the next morning. I started going to gas stations and just ask people if I could have a ride because I was not having much luck with my signs. It took longer than I expected, but after a few rides, I finally came across a government official who was heading close to the airport. It was pouring rain out, so he didn’t think I would have much luck catching another ride, so he kindly decided to take me the final 10 or so miles to my destination. At the airport, I was dumbfounded. I had never seen an airport with signs that said no sleeping or eating in the airport, but here they were. I realized I needed to find a hidden area where no one would notice I was sleeping because I did not want to go back out into the rainstorm to try to sleep for the night. I found the restrooms and was very happy to see that the doors to the stall were from the ground to the ceiling and the stall were big enough to lay down in. I had my own private suite. Another traveler had the suite two doors down.

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Iceland was amazing and I can’t wait to go back and experience it in the summer. Being so far in the northern hemisphere, on June 21, it’s longest day, the sun sets just after midnight and rises before 3AM, so there is nearly 24 hours per day to explore this gorgeous and incredible country.

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