i arrived in Höfn in a mix of relief and exhaustion. i’ve been on marathon roadtrips before where i’ve driven 30 hours straight without sleep and this was definitely not that, but i also stopped at every attractive turnoff or side road for 300 kilometers this time and that sort of behavior really starts to wear you down during a full day, especially when you don’t know exactly where you’re going. so when i pulled into town, i was running on fumes. so much so that i didn’t even realize how small the town is (less than 2,000 humans. i can’t count the elves because they never show up for the census, but iceland knows they’re out there… (no but seriously. i’m not joking. click here if you don’t believe me). after doing a few laps around the town before finally finding my nondescript hostel (i’m pretty sure this place was a hospice center or rest home for the old and dying previously. seriously it was a very sterile place, not a lot of charm, and it had a weird vibe to it.), i settled in and went straight to bed. the next morning, i awoke and plugged my wifi code in to my little trusty laptop/tablet hybrid to see what the world was doing. i had about 5 minutes of facebooking under my belt before the tragic occurred:
the wifi went out.
and it stayed out.
look, i know my last post did a nice job of waxing poetic about getting off the grid and not being connected to technology, etc… but dammit, i love the internet. it’s maybe the most amazing thing ever invented, so to be completely unplugged from something that you hold in such high regard… it requires a little patience. i was losing mine quickly. i needed the wifi to at least look up a couple fun things i could do in the area, and to make reservations for guided tours of the national park skaftafell or the glacier lagoon i previously wrote about. so when i couldn’t do that, i sorta just threw my hands in the air and just went for a drive. yep, you guessed it, i put the pedal to the metal and burned a couple pounds of rubber along the eastern coastline of iceland. more scenery, more random stops, no real goal in mind and nothing really accomplished. I did manage to make friends with some Icelandic horses on the side of the road though…
when i got back to the hostel that night, i noticed something odd. i couldn’t understand anything anybody was saying. i know i’m in europe (and in the country with arguably the weirdest language of all), and in a place where there are different languages being spoken all the time, but this was different. all the languages sounded the same, but none of them were in congress with each other. i looked around as i ate my peanut butter and jelly and nutella sandwich (meal of champions right there, and i am obviously aspiring to greatness), and i started to notice the pockets of people in the common areas of this hostel. groups of 2s and 3s and 4s, but nothing larger than that, and all speaking the same language. a language with an interesting treatment of the “R” sound. and an a lot of “sh” sounds. and… yep. germans. germans everywhere. in the middle of nowhere iceland. it was strange. but there was no big bus full of organized tour-goers here. these germans were all randomly here in the same middle-of-nowhere town somehow at exactly the same off-season time. what twilight zone episode had i landed into the middle of?
at first it was funny. i mean imagine this scene. you’re the only person who doesn’t know what the hell is going on. and german is sort of a funny sounding language to me. it’s not really “harsh” sounding like i consider some languages, but it’s also not exactly a “romance language” like italian or french. and sometimes german sounds a little angry or uptight to me, so i get confused on the social queues. so i just sat there taking it all in, listening to a bunch of verbal distortion that i had zero ability to decipher. eventually some of the groups started to realize that they weren’t the only ones speaking german, like they probably usually assume when they are in a country as far away from theirs as iceland. their conversation groups started to merge. i watched as one by one, a majority of the room started to enthusiastically converge, and eventually i was the odd man out. it slowly went from entertaining to disappointing, as one of the reasons i embarked on this trip was to explore human connection and interaction, but i did not want to selfishly interrupt this case of sociology developing before my eyes, so eventually i just went to bed.
but i realized something as i lay in bed, trying to sleep. the wifi was still down. these people were being unknowingly coerced into interacting with each other due to lack of options. and they were having a blast! i wondered if they ever would have made these connections if these certain set of circumstances hadn’t lined up to provide such an opportunity. and then i found myself jealous that i couldn’t really be a part of it. and this continued for 2 nights.
One of the nights, I didn’t really feel like sleeping, so around midnight I went outside to see if I could see the northern lights (typical season for this starts in October and runs til march, so I wasn’t expecting anything). There had been a major solar flare 2 days prior and there was a possibility of seeing them, but unfortunately most of the sky in my area of the island was covered in clouds. After about an hour of searching, I did manage to see an aurora form in the distant horizon, but it was very faint. It’s not really even worth describing because I then noticed something even more fantastical. The volcano barabunga, which has been in the headlines recently for a rather weak but steady “fissure” eruption (a long crack in the surface with lava flow, instead of your Hollywood volcano that features a monolithic triangular mountain with volcano spewing from the top) was on my side of the island, but on the far side of the vatnajokull glacier that separated us. The clouds above this volcano were low enough, and the night dark enough, that the glow emitting from the lava was actually reflecting off of the low-hanging clouds over the glacier. The effect this was producing was similar to a vibrant red and pink sunset over the rocky mountains back home in Denver, but the difference was that this was localized to one peak on the mountain ridge and it was well past midnight. The rest of the sky was black as space. It was awe-inducing. I stared it this phenomenon off in the distance for an hour before retiring for the night.
lucky for me, on the final night of my stay in Höfn, after a couple days of exploring around by myself and then returning to my temporary solitude, and after a few failed attempts on previous nights at trying to ease my way into conversation with some mildly attractive german girls, everything changed again. i came home and everyone was gone. almost the entire hostel was empty. with the weekend starting that night, everyone had moved out toward the capital or onward toward other adventures in other areas of the island. before i could lament what was lonelier, new occupants started to slowly trickle in from the road. and each time i watched comically as they expressed their disgust at the fact that the wifi was down. i started offering small jokes to voice my relation to their plight, and my sympathy began to build connection.
Eventually a group of Israelis came in who were particularly friendly. Finally, someone who wanted to interact. We made a couple jokes back & forth, and then at one point they were looking at the brochure section in the lobby, obviously trying to figure out what they were going to do the following day. I ventured some advice, seeing as I was getting pretty familiar with the area, and they were very grateful. They went back to their rooms and returned about 10 minutes later, walking out to the back patio with a box. On their way out the door, they leaned back and looked my way. I caught this out of the corner of my eye and looked up, to which one of them said “friend, would you like to smoke some hookah with us?”
I love hookah. For the uninitiated, it’s basically tobacco flavored with fruit preserves and powder, and it is smoked through a traditional middle-eastern water bong. it is much less harsh-tasting than cigars or cigarettes and tastes wonderful. it isn’t particularly good for you, but what vice is? The best part is that it is a great tool to bring people together. This is a regular thing in the middle east, in fact, in many Lebanese or Moroccan or middle eastern restaurants that you’ve been to in the US often use these hookah bongs as decorations, but you may not have even noticed.
So there i was, an American smoking an Arabic hookah with Israeli friends in nowheresville Iceland, sharing travel stories and enjoying the night air. and then the magic started again. Two guys who were traveling the ring road together whom had just met each other in a hostel in Reykjavik on the 1st day of their trips and decided to rent a car together, one from mexico city and the other from Switzerland, came outside for a cigarette and joined us, thanks to the Israelis’ generous invitations. The group then expanded further when another couple came outside, a polish male and an Australian female, the polish guy offering to share some of his vodka after partaking of the hookah. I think there may have been a Brazilian in there somewhere too, I can’t remember. the conversation waved to and fro, people sharing stories from their backgrounds, comparing worldviews on different subjects, comparing notes on what to do when you find yourself in this country or that city, and every person trying to convince the others that someday you should come to visit my country, it is a great place I will show you around, etc. it was incredible.
And I still couldn’t help but come back to that realization from the other night. None of this would have happened if the wifi had been working.