Coming home…

(Before my family and friends back home have a “freak out”, no, I have not jumped on a plane back to Aus. ;))

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more.”  ~Robin Hobb

A couple of days ago, I booked my tickets to come back home. Sure, it is not until July, but already I am excited. That doesn’t mean I am not having fun here, but there is something special about those people (friends and family) who have known you for a very long time. I think this becomes even more important the older you get, as these people understand you and your history in a way that new friends are usually not able to do. So I am looking forward to family dinners, and beers at the local, and riding my bike, and sitting with friends and not having to say a word without anyone thinking I am being rude or unsociable. I am looking forward to walking into a shop and not having to use all my concentration to understand what people are saying to me. I am looking forward to Melbourne’s kooky weather, and going to watch the footy, and meat pies with sauce. And as I have been thinking a lot about my Australian home this week, and the concept of home in general, it seems fitting that I tell you guys a little bit about my Swedish home.

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Home is a place where you feel comfortable – a place where you belong – a place you feel safe. Home has been described as the place where we live, the place where we came from, or it can be something less tangible – a feeling or sensation you carry with you throughout life, no matter where you are. Home can be immovable or portable, places or people, a way of life or a path you have chosen to follow. But however you choose to define it, your home is your centre, and it is from here that everything else in your world is referenced against.

“Where thou art – that – is Home.”  ~Emily Dickinson

I arrived in Sweden for the last week of summer, and was greeted with blue skies and sunshine. And, even better I was greeted at the train station by a group of students from Örebro University. These students were “fadders” and as far as I know there is no direct english translation for this word, but basically they are senior students at the university assigned to help new students integrate into the university community. This includes socially, academically and physically. I guess “student mentor” is the closest I could get, but I am not sure even that fully explains what a fadder is. But after being awake for over 30hrs, with a long overnight transit in Copenhagen, it was the physical integration that was top of my list.

So all equipped with bus cards, we jumped on the number 3 bus and headed in to the arrival camp at the University. This was where we would get important information about our stay in Sweden, but more importantly, it was where we would find out where we would be living while we were here. I had chosen, like the vast majority of students, to take the University allocated accommodation, which is either corridor-style living or apartment style living. You do not get to chose which sort of accommodation you receive, and the University (despite many pleas on our facebook page) would not tell us where we were assigned until our arrival in Örebro. Each type of accommodation has its own advantages and disadvantages – in corridor style you have your own bathroom, but (usually) less space, and you have to share a kitchen with up to eight people – in the apartments you have more space, only share a kitchen with one or two other people, but you also have to share a bathroom.

As I am happier about sharing a kitchen than a bathroom, I was happy to find I had been allocated to corridor living in an area called Tybblegatan. (gatan is Swedish for street, so it is quite literally Tybble Street) Tybblegatan is across the road from the university (it takes me about 5 mins to walk to the main entrance to the university) and is one of the three main areas of student accommodation. The other two areas are called Studentgatan (Student Street :)) and Brickebacken. Studentgatan, as its name implies, is all students and is on the University grounds. Because of this, and the fact it is closest to all the Uni bars, it is renowned as the “party” area of the accommodation complexes. Brickebacken is about a 15-20 min walk from the Uni, and is where all the apartments are. It is furthest form the Uni and from the centre of town, so its big drawcard is it is a bit quieter and, of course, the advantage of being in an apartment rather than a corridor.

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A view across the park to my apartment block in Tybblegatan – mine is the one on the corner behind the little tree.

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A close up of my window – being right on the corner at the back I get a view over the parkland. At the moment it is beautiful white snow.

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It is not just students who live in this area – these pretty apartments (with balconies) are where the rich people live.

My area is surrounded my sports grounds and is midway between the craziness of Studentgatan and the quietness of Brickebacken and that suits me just fine. :) I have been lucky enough to get a really quiet corridor, but my neighbouring corridor have at least one big party a week – usually two – and if they are feeling really good, three to four! But normally they wind things up by around 11pm, and head out to whichever bar is on the list that night. For those of you that don’t know, drinking 0ut is fairly expensive in Sweden, so pre-parties are a way of life for the student crowd – noone really goes out anywhere until after 11pm, and the bulk of drinking is done before this time.

Living permanently in student accommodation as a mature age distance Ed student has taken a bit of adjustment, but overall it is a very good place to live. I am lucky with my housemates – they are all nice people, with probably the only fault being they are a little lax in cleaning up after themselves in the kitchen. Dishes get washed, but there seems to be a severe aversion to wiping down benches and taking out rubbish. (I can hear my mother laughing while reading this all the way from Australia – I am not known to be the best when it comes to cleaning up either!) But, having had the opportunity of seeing some of the other corridors, I think I am pretty well off. 😀 And it is sort of nice to have so much stuff going on all the time – especially seeing I have a quiet corner I can escape to when needed. :p

My living space is not big, but it is big enough for me. But instead of trying to describe it, how about I show you…but be warned, my video skills are not the best!

And I have also included a couple of photos which show my room in a most unnatural state of cleanliness. 😉

Where I sleep.

Where I sleep.

Where I study.

Where I study.

Where I sit and read.

Where I sit and read.

“Your true home is in the here and the now.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

As part of our orientation here in Örebro we had a guest speaker from Spain come and speak to us about acclimatising to a new culture, and she told us there were four distinct phases that you go through when you move somewhere new. First there is a “honeymoon phase”, where everything is new and wonderful and different. Then you go through a period of frustration. This is where you start to notice the things you miss about where you you came from – and the differences are now not so wonderful. After making it through this you go through a period of adjustment, where you begin to integrate into your new culture. And finally, if you stay somewhere long enough, you adapt. I will talk a bit more about this concept in later posts, but for now I just want to say that I have reached the adjustment phase. This place is not the same as my “forever home”, Australia, but I am happy here now in my little corner of Sweden and I am glad to be able to call it “home” also. A big part of this has been due to a homecoming of a very different kind.

Tybblegatan in the snow.

Tybblegatan in the snow.

Looking into our kitchen.

Looking into our kitchen.

The road I walk down to get to Uni.

The road I walk down to get to Uni.

“I had come to a place where I was meant to be. I don’t mean anything so prosaic as a sense of coming home. This was different, very different. It was like arriving at a place much safer than home.”  ~Pat Conroy

When I started studying at CSU I didn’t know what to expect. I had decided to enrol to do a degree via distance Ed to give me something to keep my mind ticking over during the night shifts at work, and maybe give me an option of something else to do down the track after I had exceeded my tolerance for shift work. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, and I am extremely proud of the work I have done there in the past, and will hopefully continue to do when I get home. But the work is also tiring, emotionally and physically, and as management is not really my thing I thought it was about time to consider a plan B.

Going back to study as a mature age student can be extremely daunting. It had been a long time since I had attempted any kind of academic work, and my first two attempts were not exactly raving successes. I think I had more fails and withdrawals on my previous transcripts than passing grades! So it came as a bit of a surprise to me how much I enjoyed it, and how much I specifically loved the course I had chosen (Medical Science/Forensic Biotechnology). By halfway through the first semester I was totally and completely in love with it – so much so that one of my closest friends calls it my first real committed relationship. She reckons it is the only thing I have ever completely given 100% to – and if I am completely honest she is probably right. This commitment I have to my study is close to bordering on an obsession, and can be consuming at times. And when anything reaches that level of importance in your life, it can also be accompanied by fear. Fear of not being good enough, fear that I might not feel the same about it years down the track, and fear that maybe I had left my run too late.

Here in Sweden, I have been given a unique opportunity to get a sneak preview what my life would be like after graduation, and I like what I have seen. And this opportunity has helped to allay some of the fears I have had. I now know without a doubt that this is something I want to continue with in the future. And it is more than just the work itself – it is a sense of belonging to a community. This is something I will be able to carry with me wherever I end up living in the future, and it has ensured that Örebro University will always hold a special place in my heart. But that, I think, is a story for another time. 😉

“Home is not where you live but where they understand you.”  ~Christian Morgenstern

The approach to Uni - obviously some time ago!

The approach to Uni – obviously some time ago!

Waterfalls, whales, caves…and yet another festival.

Well, first semester over in Sweden is now done and dusted, and the time has gone surprisingly fast! And I have been a very bad blogger, in not keeping you guys updated with everything that has been happening here, but one of the reasons it has gone so fast is that I have been astoundingly busy. The last semester has been so rich with experiences (both educational and otherwise) that I have barely had time to stop and take it all in! And has it been fun? Hells yeah! So much so that I have organised to stay here for the second semester also. This is pretty much confirmed, although I am still waiting for the official go ahead from immigration. (the wheels turn very slowly there) There is so much I want to tell you guys about, but before I get too involved in what is happening now, I have one more “catch up” post about Iceland…I actually started writing this over a month ago, so it would be a shame not to finish it!!!

In my last post, I had just finished the walk from Þorsmörk to Skógar. After my very lovely lie in the morning after I decided to spend the morning checking out the Skógar Folk Museum. This is an awesome little place, with an indoor “formal” museum with relics relevant to the cultural history of the area and an outdoor section with reconstructed traditional dwellings, including a church, a schoolhouse, and (my favourite) old farmhouses complete with grass roofs. There is also a totally awesome transport museum – they link everything together really well, so it is more like a journey through Iceland’s history than just looking at old cars.

My favourite room in the Skógar museum.

The reconstructed farmhouses – and you can go inside!

How awesome is this old-school snow mobile?

After getting a fill of some local culture, it was time to head back to Reykjavík for some music culture. The bus ride back had a commentary, which included some history of the places we were travelling through and also some snippets from Icelandic Sagas, which are a collection of historical writings/folk tales written between 1000-1500. And of course we had to stop and check out a couple more waterfalls. 🙂

On arriving back in Reykjavík I headed straight back to the local campground – I didn’t think it would be worth pushing my luck trying to find accommodation as Culture Night is even bigger than Pride, and once again I had not booked anywhere to stay. So, all set up and showered up, it was time to head into town and see what was going on.

Culture Night is predominantly a music festival, and although there are other events (displays, exhibitions) going on throughout the weekend, Saturday night is the “big event”. There were a number of stages set up around the city, and the local music venues also had stuff going on, so there was pretty much something for every taste. Russell Crowe was one of the “guest stars” this year, and one of the other Aussies in Reykjavík told me he turned up unannounced at their hostel earlier in the day for a jam! I started the night in a smaller venue where they had one of Iceland’s young metal bands playing, and then cruised around the town going between stages and venues. The atmosphere was really nice – although they allow drinking in the streets, everyone was really chilled out – aside from the people who where there to party hard, there was also a really big family atmosphere and it was nice to see people of all ages mingling together in the streets. The night culminated with an awesome fireworks display.

Starting out the night listening to some local talent.

Russell Crowe on one of the four “main stages” around the city.

Fireworks signalling the official “end” of Culture Night.

After the fireworks, I spent the rest of the night chilling out at one of the local pubs, where the music continued well into the night. The night ended well after dawn (it was midway through the afternoon when I finally made it home) after befriending a local who had a keen interest in all things scientific, particularly in physics. This man had the most amazing book collection I have ever seen, including first edition texts from many prominent scientists and scientific ethicists and philosophers. His particular interest was disproving Gödel’s incompleteness theorem by finding a theory of everything (ToE) – certainly an ambitious task! Needless to say, we had a very interesting (and argumentative night) touching on many aspects of current, past, and potential scientific knowledge and philosophy.

My last few days in Reykjavík were busy ones. I spent one day checking out the city itself, now that there was a reprieve from the rain! Part of this included a walking tour through the city. Walking tours are something I really love to do when I get to a new city as I tend to walk mostly anyway, so it helps to orient yourself to the city lay out and you get to learn a bit about the history and culture of the place also. And Iceland has a vibrant and colourful history and culture. 🙂

I was going to caption this, but I think the photo speaks for itself.

I was going to caption this, but I think the photo speaks for itself.

The colourful back streets of Reykjavík.

The colourful back streets of Reykjavík.

An elf stone. A whole family of elves live in here. Seriously. See the door?

An elf stone. A whole family of elves live in here. Seriously. See the door?

Bikes and flowers. Two of my favourite things.

Bikes and flowers. Two of my favourite things. In the same place. Together. Cool.

The Radhus (city hall). If you look closely there are portholes in the mossy wall, representing the city's seafaring history.

The Radhus (city hall). There are portholes in the wall, representing the city’s seafaring history.

This dude really wanted his photo taken and spent quite some time posing for all us tourists.

This dude really wanted his photo taken and spent quite some time posing for all us tourists.

Looking up the hill to Halgrímskirkja.

Looking up the hill to Halgrímskirkja.

Look - blue sky! A lovely Icelandic summer afternoon.

Blue sky! A lovely summer afternoon.

Looking out over the city from the top of Halgrímskirkja.

Looking out over the city from the top of Halgrímskirkja.

An example of some of the graffiti that decorates this already colourful city.

Some of the graffiti that decorates this already colourful city.

Harpa - the performing arts centre.

Harpa – the performing arts centre by day.

And Harpa in her full glory at night.

And Harpa in her full glory at night. (it looks much better in person)

Any trip to Iceland would not be complete without a whale watching tour, so I spent an afternoon out on the water catching up with some Minke whales. The whale tourism industry is in opposition to the whale hunting industry, and the tour operators asked us all to please avoid whale eating – the other whale oriented tourist activity in Iceland. (most locals are not that keen on eating whale – < 5% actually do) As I wasn’t overly keen on chomping down on some whale carcass anyway this was not too hard to agree to.

The afternoon out on the water was lovely, and we were even lucky enough to see the last of the puffins, albeit from a distance. (it was the end of the season, so they were leaving the harbour, not the planet!)

A Minke whale - for a big creature they are *very* hard to photograph.

A Minke whale – for a big creature they are *very* hard to photograph.

View of the mountains around the harbour - and a gull!

View of the mountains around the harbour – and a gull!

A sparkly, sparkly ocean - such a beautiful place to spend an evening. :))

A sparkly, sparkly ocean – such a beautiful place to spend an evening.

Then it was time for some more outdoor adventures. So I headed out to Þingvellir National Park for some snorkelling. Now even though it is summer, snorkelling in Þingvellir is not such a simple thing. We were to snorkel across the Silfra rift, the spot at which the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are (slowly) separating. And we were snorkelling in a glacial lake, to the water temperature was, oh, say 2 or 3°C. So all dressed up in thermals, puffy heat suits, and dry suits we were set to go. Being glacial water, it was incredibly clear and clean, but even with only a small part of our faces uncovered it was incredibly cold!

After lunch we headed down into the caves, which was a pretty cool way to spend an afternoon. And the surrounding National Park was absolutely gorgeous. 😀

The beautiful Þingvellir National Park.

The beautiful Þingvellir National Park.

Ready to head down into the cave...

All ready to head down into the cave…

This rock. It looks like fire. I *love* this rock. :))

This rock looks like fire. I *love* this rock.

And that was it. My time in Iceland was over. I could write so much more about this wonderful, diverse little country, but I think it may be time to tell you a little bit about the country I am actually living in – Sweden.

So I am going to leave you with a photo of where I spent my last day in Iceland – sometimes there is something nice about having a late afternoon flight. 😀

The Blue Lagoon. Tourist central, overpriced, but a totally unmissable experience.

The Blue Lagoon. Tourist central, overpriced, but a totally unmissable experience.

Pushing through.

It is rather fitting I am writing this blog post today, because it is about taking opportunities, pushing yourself beyond your limits, and making hard decisions. This has been a bit of a recurring theme with my exchange so far, and this week a few things have happened that have meant once again I have to figure out how to go forward, and, as John Lennon said, to do this you have to know which way you are facing. So many good things have happened to me here – both Really Big Things and Really Good Things – things that I would never have got to do back home, and now I have to decide whether I need to choose between some Really Big Things and some Really Good Things, because I am not sure if I will be able to manage both at the moment. *sigh* But before I get too melancholy about having to choose between the amazing and the awesome (could be worse, hey ;)) I want to take you back to Iceland again…with lots of photos in this one!

At Þorsmörk, ready to set out – I probably look relaxed because I haven’t tried to lift the pack yet!

So, when I left you last time I was in Þorsmörk, having just walked the Laugavegur trail. Here I had the option of continuing on towards Skógar (a further 27km) or taking the bus back to Reykjavík. I was a bit torn as I really wanted to do this stretch of the walk (it was reported to be *awesome*) but I also wanted to be back in Reykjavík for the weekend, as they were having their famous Culture Night on the Saturday night (it was Friday). Being unable to choose between the two, I decided to attempt to do the whole walk in one day, and then take the bus back to Reykjavík Saturday afternoon. Never mind I had only been walking 15km max the last four days, and that the walk over the Fimmvörðuháls Pass involved the steepest and most technically challenging part of the walk so far. I wanted the best of both worlds. (and to set your mind at ease, I did make sure it was possible to camp at the top if both my legs and spirit gave out – the Ranger said it was possible but conditions were exposed, cold and windy) So, I got up nice bright and early, ready to leave at 7am – as it was not geting dark until around 9pm, I thought that would give me heaps of time. 😀

The walk started out nicely. It was a lovely day and the scenery was beautiful. One last big river crossing (helped by a  strategically placed mobile bridge) and it was time to start the climb. I am not usually the best at hills, but today my legs felt great and I was barreling up the mountain.

A baby fox that was hanging around the campsite in the morning.

The last big river crossing of the journey. (mobile bridge not shown)

Climbing up – looking back from where I had come…

But, as I was soon to find out, this was the easy bit of the trail. The higher I got, the steeper it got, and the more *interesting* the trail became…

This is worse than it looks – it is less than 1m wide and drops off steeply on either side.

A number of spots along the trail had ropes or chains that you needed to use to help get up the steep parts.

And as it got higher I got a glimpse of what the bleak may have looked like with better visibility.

Eventually I made it up the worst of the climb (and by now it *was* starting to hurt) and I started the passage of the Fimmvörðuháls Pass. This was well above the vegetation mark, and was the closest to alpine walking I had ever done. It was wide and harsh and open and spectacularly beautiful. 😀

A waterfall on the way up.

Looking across the highlands.

Glacier!

The next stage of the walk took me through where the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions happened in 2010 – the ones that so disrupted all the European flights. As they had also had a (small) eruption earlier this year, the lava fields were still hot and steaming! It was a pretty surreal experience.

Steaming lava fields in the snow.

The path through the volcanic dust.

A mini crater amidst the snow.

From about here things started to get tough. I had already walked nearly 15km, with most of this being uphill, and a lot of it very steep. And I was starting to get pretty hungry. A couple of us, who kept crossing paths on the climb, had decided it would be a good idea to stop for lunch at the cabin at the top of the pass, which according to my map *should* have been about 1km from where the lava fields started, but I was soon to learn that maps are not particulary relevant when you are walking through an area that has been rapidly changing due to volcanic action. After walking past the main lava fields, I met up with a group going the other way, who told me I had another 3km at least until the cabin!. Two extra kilometers doesn’t sound like much, but when you are tired, hungry and thirsty it can feel very long indeed! And just because it had stopped going up didn’t mean the walking was any easier. This stretch of walking was through soft volcanic dust, rocky lava fields, snow, and glacial ice.

Some of the terrain at the top. Not easy to walk through!

You should just be able to see the amazing blue of the glacial ice.

I had to walk across this – see the yellow pole in the background?

Eventually I started to feel I was making progress. I found the “new” cabin, where I would have stopped to camp if I chose, and I was also able to fill up my water bottle here. And then, there was the “old” cabin. 🙂 Somewhere to stop, sit down and get out of the wind, which had picked up massively in the last hour. The cabin was dirty and full of rubbish, and had obviously not been looked after for quite some time, but it marked a major point in the day. Here I met up again with some of the people I had crossed paths with on the way up – a couple of Czechs and a Slovakian – who very kindly insisted I eat a hot lunch with them – curried chicken and rice – awesome!

The new cabin – note the rope!

The last stretch of “volcano dust”.

Lunch stop! *grin*

The lunch stop was also going to be the place where I made the decision whether to keep going or cut my losses and set up camp. Now, when I say “lunch”, it was already after 4pm by the time we finished lunch, so it had been 9hrs since I left that morning, and from our calculations it was about 12kms further until we got to camp. But as there was still 5hrs of good daylight left, the rest of the walk was all downhill, and the top of the pass definitely did not look like an appealing place to camp (especially the cabin!) I decided to give it a go. Worst case, I had a tent and I could just find a place to camp on the way down. 😀

I am not going to say too much about the walk down, except that it was tough. Really, really freaking tough. My feet were hurting, my shoulders were hurting, my back was hurting – in fact, most of me was hurting. I have done a fair bit of endurance stuff in my past, and it had got to the stage where the body had had enough and now it was up to the mind. I now had to set mini goals – if you make it to this landmark you can have some water – if you make it to this spot you can take off the pack for 5 minutes – if you make it to there you can have something to eat. Then I started counting my progress by poles instead of landmarks. And then by steps. And finally, I sang out loud but I kept losing track of what I was singing – I think at one stage it took me about 30 minutes to get through one complete song. :/

On the bright side the walk down was very beautiful. There were two alternate paths to take down – one that was a trail that took you past around 15 waterfalls, or the main track, where you went past around five of them. Considering I was walking alone and pretty buggered, I decided it was the safer option to take the main track. But really, who is going to complain about only seeing *five* waterfalls? 😀

A bridge I stopped at on one of my rest breaks.

Following the river along the trail to camp.

One of the many awesome waterfalls on the way down.

Finally I made it into camp just after 9.30 at night. I don’t believe I have ever finished a walk in such bad shape as I did that night. I had been on my feet over 14 hrs and had not eaten or drunk enough and had been carrying a pack that was way too heavy. Seriously. Bad. Planning. But I had made it. :)) My first task was taking my shoes off, and to my dismay my feet felt just as bad – if not worse – outside of my boots. Unfortunately I had scored a pair of massive blisters on my big toes which made it extremely painful to walk – even without shoes on cold soft grass. After getting my shoes off, the next step was to set up the tent, fill up my water bottle, get off my sweaty clothes and crash out in my sleeping bad and try and get some food into me. I was shivering like anything, but my skin was dry and burning hot to touch. Not good. It took me a little bit to realise I had managed to get myself rather dehydrated and probably had a mild case of heat exhaustion. That totally explained my difficulties on keeping enough concentration on the way down to even finish a simple song. 😦 I decided not to cook, but made myself get a decent (but not massive) amount of water down, and finished off the rest of my scroggin to get my sugar levels back up somewhat. Then I fell into a deep, deep sleep.

*Disclaimer – the next bit of the post involves images of my feet, which are not pretty at the best of times – let alone after 5 days of hiking – feel free to skip it if you want!*

Some blister fluid post “op”.

I woke the next day feeling substantially better, having slept for over 12hrs. Unfortunately my feet were still buggered, and there was no way I was going to be able to walk properly, let alone wear shoes, in the shape they were in. So there was only one thing to do. Pop the blisters. So I set out to work, sterilising some safety pins and my skin (with alcohol wipes, and squeezed the fluid out of those nasty buggers. Strangely enough I had only managed to get blisters on my big toes, and they were so full of fluid my toes looked deformed. But releasing the fluid made a world of difference – an immediate release of pain. 🙂 And of course I remembered to leave the skin intact to protect the delicate tissue beneath. 😉

So would I recommend the walk from Þorsmörk to Skógar? Abso-freakin-lutely – just make sure you are more prepared than me and have a much lighter pack – or are craploads fitter than I am! It was some of the most spectacular and diverse scenery I have ever walked through. And as a reward for those of you who got past my feet (well done!) I will leave you with a picture of one more waterfall – the one at my final campsite, which was the first thing I saw in the morning after waking up – the beautiful Skógafoss. :))

Hiking Laugavegur Part Two

So, you are going to get a couple of posts a bit close together because I have found a little bit of a break in my schedule and am catching up on a few loose ends. From now on, I will probably start each post with a little bit of what is going on at the moment, but there are still a few things that happened *before* which I want to share with you guys, so there will still be a little bit of jumping around. Last time I was talking about hiking…

Blue sky. 🙂

After a very well deserved and peaceful night sleeping, day three of hiking Laugavegur brought a surprise. Blue sky. 🙂 There was summer here after all. And after the difficulties of the day before it was a very nice thing to start out the walk with a bit more colour in the landscape.It was a really pretty day of walking today. The trail wound through green hills and followed creeks and rivers for the most part. And although there were some river crossings, most of them weren’t glacial, so I just got wet feet – not frozen ones. At some rivers they even gave us a bridge. The walking was mostly flat and not particularly challenging, so it was nice to just amble along and spend a bit of time lazing around in the sunshine – there is definitely something to be said for the long summer days – especially when it is not pouring with rain!

One of the many pretty creeks I got to cross.

How to cross a river without getting your feet wet.

Flowers along the trail help brighten the day.

The nice weather made people a bit more talkative today too (including myself) so it was also nice to chat with a few people as I walked along the trail. And that evening I was greeted with one of the most beautifully set campsites I have ever had the pleasure to stay in.

How’s this for a place to be spending the night?

Day four from now on will be known as Gorge Day. And I am not talking of the eating kind. 😉 I started out the day strolling to the local gorge, Markarfljótsgljúfur, and just in case you were wondering I cannot pronounce it. But whatever its name is, it was definitely a beautiful place. And it was here that I got my first (distant) views of the glaciers I was going to be walking through.

Markarfljótsgljúfur…

…and mountains in the background.

Them be glaciers!

After leaving Markarfljótsglúfur it was onto the next gorge, the equally difficult to pronounce Syðri-Emstruárgljúfur. The scenery here reminded me a little of the desert areas in Arizona near the Grand Canyon, and I was soon to learn (from some friendly Icelanders) that the Icelandic highlands *are* actually the biggest desert area in Europe. This is due to a combination of altitude, harsh temperatures and the volcanic environment. Speaking of volcanic environments, today was the first day where i started to get close to some really volcanically active areas – near to both Eyafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010, and Katla, which is one of Iceland’s most active and dangerous volcanos, and who is “statistically due” to erupt. (apparently overdue) So every now and then signs were placed along the trail about “What to do if the volcano erupts”. Well, my first thought would be “Crap my pants”, but apparently the Icelanders are rather stoic about the whole volcano/eruption thing, which is probably a result of living in one of the more volcanically active places in the world.

Bridge over the Syðri-Emstruárgljúfur

And the view down the river from the bridge.

Where Syðri-Emstruárgljúfur and Markarfljótsgljúfur meet.

But despite the spectacular scenery of Gorge day, I think my absolute highlight was lying on the side of a hill eating wild blueberries with a couple of young Icelandic men, who were out hiking Laugavegur for the first time. Nothing like getting your hiking snacks fresh from nature. 😀 We had already spoken a couple of times along the trail, and I spent the rest of the day walking with them, getting a bit of an insight into Icelandic history and culture. One of these things is dried fish, and the Icelanders do this *really* well. I know it sounds a little weird, but try it. Yum. The lads were eating it with butter – and by this I mean spread on the fish as if it was a piece of bread.

Our lunch stop, complete with dried fish, was at the third gorge of the day – the pretty little Ljósárgljúfur. Then it was on to cross the widest (and coldest) glacial river of the trek so far – the Þröngá. (strangely enough this translates as “Narrow River” and it most definitely is not) Finally, we had a very pleasant stroll through an Icelandic forest (see Grandpa, they do have trees!) to reach our campsite.

N.B. – Joke I learned from one of the Icelandic lads – What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up!

A view of where we stopped for lunch

Þröngá – the ‘narrow’ river.

An Icelandic forest.

The place I was camping in that night was called Þorsmörk, which translates as Thor’s forest (the letter Þ has a ‘th’ sound) and if I was a god I would not be ashamed to have this place named after me. For two nights in a row I had the great fortune to camp in some spectacularly beautiful places. So, to finish the tale of “Hiking Laugavegur” I will leave you with a view of the sun setting behind the glaciers over my campsite. 😀

Hiking Laugavegur – Part One

Well, today I had my first exposure to the Swedish examination system, which in my case involved a 5hr exam which was worth 100% of my marks for the subject. Makes the situation back home seem a little relaxing. :p But to catch up on some old news…..

For being a small country, Iceland packs in a lot of wilderness, and after having a festival weekend I was keen to get out and experience some of it for myself. And what better way to experience the countryside than by foot? So I got myself a return bus ticket, picked up some food and last minute odds and ends from town and set out to walk Laugavegur, one of the most frequently travelled and famous trails in Iceland. In fact, it is world renowned for it’s diverse landscapes, and has been compared to great walks such as the Inca trail.

Those of you who know me well know I am quite into hiking. I have been bushwalking with my parents since I was old enough to walk, and grew up in guiding and scouting, so am quite comfortable lugging a pack and sleeping in a tent. I started to get into solo walking in my early twenties, and although it is something I have not done so much in recent years, it is something I enjoy immensely when I get the chance. So it would be fair to say I am an experienced, if slightly out of condition, walker.

But those of you who know me really well would also know my organisational and planning skills are not exactly top notch. Also, I have this amazing ability to overestimate my capabilities, coupled with a near disabling stubborn independence that makes it challenging for me to accept help, or admit when I actually need it. So it was probably not really surprising when I broke one of the big rules of hiking before I had even started – only take what is necessary – and headed up to begin this walk with my walking gear *and* my travel gear. So I had my big backpack on my back and my little backpack on my front. Counterbalance. No worries. If I can lift it, I can carry it. Right?

The road towards the cabin and campground.

The walk started at a place called Landmannalaugar, an area in the centre of Iceland surrounded by colourful mountains and lava fields, and natural hot springs to chill out in. And as I got here relatively early in the afternoon there was plenty of time to do a bit of day walking to stretch the legs before starting out on the hike proper the next day. The first walk I did was up to the highest peak in the immediate area, Háalda, which was a nice walk but unfortunately the weather was a little to grey and foggy to get any really great views. Still having a bit of time on my hands when I got back to camp, I decided to check out Brandsgil, a ravine walk described in my guidebook as “easy and entertaining”. So I started out walking along the river flats, with coloured mountains around me, and the trail was definitely easy – as it was following the riverbed it was nearly dead flat. And there were many river crossings (my trusty book recommends rubber boots, although most were fairly straightforward to cross without wet feet) so that was definitely interesting. And walking in ravines is pretty cool – you have these great walls of rock around you that get narrower and narrower as you get deeper in. And there were no trees. Just lots of rocks and snow and water.

Starting out on the ravine walk…..

…and how it ended up turning out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I’m not sure if it’s because I watched “The Grey” on the plane a week ago, or if it was the hidden people in Iceland getting narky about me entering their territory, but I started to get the heebie jeebies. And the deeper I got into the ravine, the worse it got. I felt like I was being watched, and the message I was getting was “You don’t belong here. Leave. Go back.” By the time I had got an hour in this feeling was palpable. It felt as though a heavy weight was resting on my shoulders and I was seeing shadows moving between the rocks. So I did what any good logical scientist would do in this situation. I listened and turned back. 😉 And as every step into this place pressed a weight down upon me, every step away from it lightened my heart. This was one walk I was happy not to finish.

Me happy to be out of Brandsgil.

The next day I started the walk proper. This started out as a ramble through lava fields and hot springs, with a background of coloured hills. Even though the weather was overcast (I was starting to believe there was no sun in Iceland) it was still very beautiful.

I loved the steamy rocks – but PS – they smell!

Some of the beautiful and steamy scenery on Day One.

All the volcanic activity makes for some cool splashes of colour. 🙂

Eventually the road climbed up, leaving the colourful lava fields below. The climb was not particularly technically difficult, but due to the overcast conditions the higher I got the less I could see. This was made even more challenging as in the higher parts of the trail the path itself was not particularly well defined, and walking was done from snow pole to snow pole. And you couldn’t see the next snow pole from the one you were at. So it was a case of head away from your pole in what you *think* is the right direction until you spot the next one. To make things even more interesting, some of the walking was actually above the snow line.

By the time the walking had become like this, I was in a part of the trail I affectionately christened “the bleak”. The surrounding scenery may have been quite beautiful, but due to the limited visibility I couldn’t really say. And what I could see was, quite frankly, rather depressing. Nothing. Some gravel and some fog. But I should let you judge.

A more interesting portion of “the bleak”.

And “the bleak” in her full glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I finally made it to my campsite, which was cold, windy and rocky, although they had kindly built us wind shelters out of rocks so my little tent didn’t get too buffeted. Although I was tired enough I reckon I would have been able to sleep even if the tent had been blown down the mountain with me in it!

Me happy to have made it to the top and inside my *warm* tent.

The next day I woke up and it was raining. Again. *sigh* So in order to keep my gear as dry as possible I decided to strap my little backpack to my large backpack so they could both fit under my rain cover. You may think this seems like a good idea, and so did I. Until I tried to lift the pack onto my back. I couldn’t. Well, this is not quite true – I could lift it about two feet, but that is a lo-o-ong way from where my shoulders are – at 178cm I am not a short woman! Logic told me that as long as I could get the pack onto my back, I could carry it – so I managed to maneuver the pack up the wind break that protected my tent overnight and we were away!

There are not any photos for this day as my camera was safely packed away in the dry interior of my pack, but even if I had been able to, I do not think I would have taken many photos as this days walking was rather challenging technically. The first half of the day was crossing a number of glacial ravines, most of which were (fortunately) not snow filled this time of the year. But it resulted in a number of (20+) steep portions of ups and downs in and out of them. And that combined with the wet weather, slippery muddy tracks, and my seriously back-heavy pack meant it was not the most fun day of walking I have ever done. And when I say steep, I am not exaggerating. You had to make little ledges in the trail/mud to get up (or in some cases down) the rises, and in some sections it was hands required also. Then there were the really fun ravines that still had some ice and snow in them, which were not only super slippery, but you had to be careful of the path you took so as to not risk falling through!

After this section was passed, the next super-fun part was an extremely steep downhill section, which I had to take *really* slow to avoid falling down the side of the mountain. Actually, I did slip over once, which considering I was wearing a pack I couldn’t even lift, was..interesting. (imagine a wet grumpy upside-down turtle) Finally reaching the bottom of the trail, I was overtaken by a group of four french hikers *running* down the trail. *sigh*

The next challenge of the day was crossing a knee-deep, fast flowing, glacial river. So by the time I got to the campsite, cold, sore, and dirty, a shower was definitely in order. Which lead to the final challenge of the day – waiting in a queue for over an hour for the only working shower. 😦

To be continued…..

Pride.

The more I travel, the more relaxed I am about the logistics of it all. Now, I rarely book airport transfers, or accommodation at my destination unless I am arriving during unsociable hours. This is not usually problematic. So, I was a little taken aback when I arrived at Keflavík Airport in Iceland on a Friday afternoon to be told there was no accommodation available in the whole city. Totally. Booked. Out. Apparently there was a festival on, and Reykjavík had swelled to twice its size. (I am still a little dubious that Tourist Information was correct on this – not even one room?) Anyway, as luck would have it, I had a tent (I planned to go hiking at some stage) and when I asked “Even the campground?”, Tourist Information seemed to think I may be in with a chance.

So bus to the campground it was, and as it turns out they had plenty of room. And plenty of rain. Yes, it was still technically summer here, but aside from the relatively long days I did not find much to distinguish an Icelandic summer from a Melbourne winter. There was definitely not going to be any sun-baking!

Grey, grey Reykjavic.

If this is summer I couldn’t begin to imagine winter…

Even the colours were not as bright!

So, decked out in wet weather gear I set off to explore this city. Now Reykjavík is a capital city, but it is not exactly big. Iceland itself only has just over 300 000 residents, with about two-thirds of these living in the Reykjavík district. The city itself *officially* has around 120 000 people. But despite her small size, Reykjavík holds her own as far as capital cities go. There is a wide variety of cuisine, nightlife, galleries, and museums, and because of the size much of this is conveniently within walking distance. Live music is a big thing, as are cafés, and there are plenty of examples of both. There are pubs and clubs, and books. Yes, books! Everywhere. There were at least five big (read: multilevel) bookshops in the town centre alone, and most of the cafés had books available to read. Not only are books one of the most popular gifts to give in Iceland, it also appears they like to write them as well. And when you do write a book in Iceland you have to donate two copies to the National Library, ensuring the countries literary heritage is well documented. So my first evening in Reykjavík was spent with books and music and coffee and beer.

But it was good weather for ducks (and geese :))

The next day it was raining and overcast – for something different. So what could be better than to start the day with a swim in a geothermal pool, conveniently located right next to the campground. Win. 😀 There are no chemicals used in these pools as the Icelandic people strongly believe in the healing and restorative properties of this water, so they are rather strict about hygiene. Shoes must be taken off before entering the changing rooms, and you must wash thoroughly without wearing bathers before entering the pool. And they mean thoroughly. Attention should be paid to areas that could be particularly dirty (eg. feet, head, genitals, etc) and there are helpful diagrams illustrating this for all the international visitors. So after a thorough scrub it was lovely to spend some time chilling out in the pool before heading back into town to see what was going on with the festival that had forced me into a tent for the weekend – Pride.

Colour in the grey. 🙂

Pride is a Big Deal in Iceland, and it is one of their largest and most popular festivals. Iceland is one of only 11 countries in which same-sex marriage is legally recognised, and their Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, is the first openly lesbian head of state in the world. This is the 14th year that Reykjavík has had Pride, and it was not going to be stopped by a little rain. There was colour, and dancing, and costumes, and of course there was music. Even a Whitney Houston medley. 😛 But the most important thing to note about Pride is there were *families*. Children and brothers and mothers and fathers. Sisters and uncles and aunts. Because Pride is not really so much about celebrating the fact that you are a part of the GLBTQ community, although this is definitely a nice thing to celebrate. 😉 What Pride should really be about is celebrating the fact that you are part of the wider community. Pride is the removal of shame. Pride is a recognition that who you are is OK – by your standards, by your family’s standards, by your friends’ standards and by society’s standards. (<- yes, I know it’s not all of society – yet) Pride is belonging.

You can’t stop the music….

I had a friend ask once if it was possible to support same sex marriage if you don’t believe in marriage, and my answer to this is “Of course!”. Because the debate is not really about marriage, it is about equality. It is about two *consenting* adults who love each other wanting to be able to express their commitment to each other in the same way as any other two consenting adults. Neither of my parents have ever married, and I have grown up believing that marriage is not a necessary part of a successful relationship. But just because I don’t believe marriage is necessary doesn’t mean I think that it is wrong. And I think it should be available as an option for *all* my family and friends. If they want to. To say it is OK to have some of the privileges of being a member of society, but not all of them, is just not on. It is exclusionary and discriminatory.

I still have friends who have not told their parents about their sexual orientation because they are afraid it may change the way their parents feel about them, or that they would be a disappointment, or that their parents would reject them completely. I wish I could turn around and make them a guarantee that this would not be the case – that these people are their *parents* and it is their job to love you unconditionally – you know – no matter what. But the world is not all cotton candy and fairytales, and because I wish it does not make it true. So Pride is important because it both celebrates how far we have come and recognises how far we have to go. I hope one day in the future we will not need Pride anymore because no one will care about the differences. Or even better, they just won’t realise there are any. But until that time we need to keep colouring our streets and shouting our stories. And don’t forget to bring your families. 😀

My Danish Family.

Sorry guys – this one has been a long time coming. It is a little long, but on the bright side it is mostly pictures, so not too much reading is involved. 😉

For those of you that don’t know, my heritage is half-Danish (which half I wonder?) as that is where my mother was born. So when it ended up being cheaper and simpler to fly into Denmark than to Sweden, it was not a particularly hard decision to make. And after chatting with my grandparents (who are in Australia) they suggested that I get in contact with my grandfather’s cousin to see whether she was interested in putting me up for a couple of days. Luckily for me she was. 🙂

It was a bit of a different experience being *met* at an airport, and definitely not what I am used to. There was no trying to interpret signs and bus or train timetables to work out how to get into the city, or talking to tourist information staff. I just walked out of arrivals and there was someone waiting for me. That is something that happens when you come home, not go somewhere new. But maybe, in a sense, this was *my* home too. So we left Copenhagen Airport and headed home. :)As it had been about 40hrs since I left Australia number one on my list was a shower and clean clothes! Next was a walk around the lake, dinner, and a relatively early night – for me.

I had two days in Copenhagen. I had briefly been to the city once before on one of my extended stopovers, so I had walked around the main centre, visited Tivoli, and eaten Danish hotdog. This time I had a car, and a tour guide, so we travelled off to see some of the places that were important to my grandparents when they lived here. First stop was a little town called Osted. This was the town which my grandmother grew up in, and also had the church where my grandparents were married.

A dude slaying a dragon and wearing sunnies? I like this church art.

The church – obviously from the outside!

And inside. 😉

Next we visited Lyndby, the town where my grandfather went to school. Here we visited the church and graveyard, where we found some more of my relatives – but these ones were not the sort that I could talk to. (on a side note, I would have been really interested to hear what they had to say if they *could* have talked – or if I knew how to listen to them…)

My Great Grandfather.

My Great Great Grandfather. (we think)

After that we headed down to check out the house where my grandfather grew up, and had lunch down by the fjord – complete with replica viking ships. 😀

A very cool spot to have lunch. 🙂

Ah, saily boats. I like saily boats.

Then it was on to  Roskilde to see the Domkirke, the third church of the day. This is the place where all the members of the Danish Royal Family are buried, so as a result it is pretty impressive.

Sometimes art can give a great visual insight into the time it was painted.

A view down the aisle.

This mosaic was just a little bit scary!

We finished off with a relaxing coffee by the harbour before heading home, with enough time for a stroll by the lake and some chill out time in the garden before a very relaxing outdoor dinner.

The next day it was into Copenhagen proper, but we concentrated on some of the areas I had not been to last time. We started the day with a river cruise and then headed down to the palace area, where we were lucky enough to have timed our arrival for the changing of the guards. There was enough time for a quick picnic lunch in one of Copenhagen’s parks before heading back to the airport for my flight to Iceland.

Some of the colourful buildings lining the harbour in Copenhagen.

The Royal Guard doing their thing.

Another great view for lunch. 🙂

On handing my passport to the lady at the check-in counter, I was bombarded with a stream of rapid Danish. Noting the bewildered look on my face, the woman at the counter said, rather grumpily, “OK – we will speak English – but you have a Danish name!”. On informing her that this was because my mother was born in Denmark, but I was born in Australia, she came back with: “Well, tell your mother she should have taught you Danish!”. So, mother, consider yourself told. 😛 (for everyone else, my mother came to Australia when she was a child herself, so don’t be too hard on her!)

My time in Denmark was rather short, but we managed to fit quite a lot in. It was interesting to see a little bit of my heritage and get a taste of some of the places that hold importance to my family. But the thing that struck me the most in Denmark was seeing *people* who looked like they belonged to my family. A couple of times a day, just walking down the street, or in a café, I would see someone reminded me of my mother, or my aunt, or my uncles, or my sister. This was a little bit strange, as I don’t really feel that so much at home.

I need to make sure I come back here someday…….