Of course I’m going to be raped and murdered within a few hours of arriving in one of the safest countries in the world, I remember thinking cynically as my taxi veered to the side of the road, the driver stopping the car abruptly in the middle of nowhere. I felt an instinctual raising of hairs and heart rate as I looked, without thought, for exits, my 60-something driver simply smiling at me, exaggerating the lines of age and living in his face. He just talked about his grandchildren. How is this happening?
He had already tried to veer off course once (“Oh! There’s a glacier over this way you should see!”), which I politely declined, and now this – slamming breaks and veering to a tilted stop on the side of an empty road. I generally sit in the front of taxis, since I’m far more comfortable getting to know my driver as equals than silently barricading myself into the back of a steel chariot. This was the first time I ever questioned that decision.
I calmly felt for the reliably present knife in my pocket as he opened his door, stepped onto the deserted road, and encouraged me to climb over his seat and join him outside – my side, tilted sharply over a small drop-off, was unsafe to exit.
What was happening right now? I’m usually pretty aware of questionable people, but this was all happening so quickly and unexpectedly, and just when I thought I could relax. I’d finally – through sheer will, yelling, and customer service – gotten my missing checked bag at the airport, found a I-must-be-misconverting-the-kroner-exchange-rate, ungodly expensive replacement taxi for the one that didn’t show, and resigned myself, due to my late plane and all the rest, to starting out on my journey the following morning rather than that evening. Thankfully I’d preemptively booked a refundable stay at the Hja Jonna guesthouse in Porlakshofn just incase a scenario like this occurred. I hadn’t, however, adequately planned for surprise homicide, apparently.
“Come on, come on,” he urged as he gestured impatiently with his hand. Despite the balmy-for-Icleand weather, I felt frozen in my seat, my hand grasping my knife. I mentally ran through my options: I could stay seated and wait for him to grow increasingly impatient; I could jump into the precipice on my side of the vehicle, tuck and roll and hope for minimal maiming; or I could climb over his seat, join him on the road, and position myself as advantageously as possible in preparation for a fight. I opted for the latter.
I less than gracefully climbed through his door and stepped onto the road, the driver now venturing onto the mossy ground beyond the pavement. “Come on, come on,” he gestured again. What the hell is going on?!
He stopped and reached into very low-lying bushes – trees and shrubbery-of-usual-size cannot survive in most of Iceland, and despite the desolation, I was at least grateful for the lack of places to hide from potential visual exposure. I leaned forward as he turned towards me, his hand outstretched in a fist. He grabbed my hand… and filled it.
“Blueberries!” He smiled. “All of these, all blueberries. You’d never see them unless you know. I grew up here, I can spot them from miles away!” He spoke as he chewed, popping a few more plump berries into his mouth. I looked down at the bounty in my hand and finally took a breath.
Fucking blueberries…. welcome to Iceland.
I looked up and we smiled at each other.
“Well then, should we be on our way? I’ll stop and see my sister in Porlakshofn after we get you to your hotel. I grew up there. And have you heard the story of the Iron Woman of Iceland?” By the end of the ride, I’d know most of his life story and he’d know mine.
After a convoluted re-routing on day two, I’d briefly return to this area and have a wonderful breakfast chat with Jón, the owner of the Hja Jonna Guesthouse – now the only place I will ever stay in Iceland – and a person so kind and welcoming I miss him already. On the day of my flight home, I’d briefly meet a musician name Stéfan, whose music is as beautiful as his smile. Over the course of my journey, I’d discover that the most memorable aspect of Iceland isn’t it’s fairytale waterfalls, black sand beaches, over-priced burgers, nor it’s voluminously maned horses. The beauty of Iceland resides in its people, who are as true, enduring, and inspiring as the landscapes.
The following morning I’d gather my pack, don my headlamp, and take off with some hope and tenacity towards unimaginable experience and the dream of a beach on the opposite side of this world. I’d check and double check my maps, sleep as much as nervous anticipation would allow, and wake (along with the sheep) before the sun to run first along gravel roads, then on sand, then over mossy nonexistent trail to head inland and northward. I still remember enjoying the odorous wafts of fish from the warehouses I ran past heading out of town. The hum of refrigeration units, the breaking waves along the coast, my breathing, my shuffling feet – this compilation forever imprinted in my ears and memory as the 4am concerto accompanying my launch from Porlakshofn.
As I crawled back into the taxi, I chewed on another handful of sweetness and smiled to myself. I think I’m going to like this place.