The Stark Beauty of Iceland

View of Reykjavík from the top of the Hallgrimskirkja tower (a Lutheran church).
View of Reykjavík from the top of the tower of the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church.

Iceland is a country of stark beauty — one in which no pictures truly capture the experience of being there, present in that place of fire and water.

Driving from the airport can seem at first underwhelming. The surrounding countryside feels barren — until you realize that the fields are actually comprised of lava rock covered in a spongy grey-green moss, which lends everything an alien appearance. We were lucky enough to come when the Lupine was blooming, covering the landscape in bright purple-blue patches of vibrant color.

lupine in Iceland
Bright blue-purple lupine covered the fields of Iceland in June.

Further exploration of Iceland reveals a grand compilation of stunning landscapes, making it feel like we were traversing different countries while driving along. Over the course of our trip, we saw bubbling hot springs and geysers, astounding waterfalls, black sand beaches, craggy coastlines, and stony green mountains.

hot springs
Bubbling pools of sulfuric hot springs at Geysir.
Kirkjufellsfoss at the Snaefellsnes National Park, Iceland.
Kirkjufellsfoss at the Snaefellsnes National Park, Iceland.
Gulfoss Falls, part of the Golden Circle in Iceland.
Gulfoss Falls, part of the Golden Circle in Iceland.

While the weather ranged from cool to quite cold, we were blessed with beautiful weather on our trip. Generally, Iceland tends to be quite rainy during the summer months — but we mostly experienced sun-spattered days and were only hit with rain on our last days. The biggest weather challenge was the constant wind, which on one hike was so intense I thought it would push me off the slim trail.

selfie - the wind in Iceland
The wind in Iceland was intense — to say the least.

A lot of blog posts I’ve read about Iceland have focused on how expensive traveling within the country is — and it is true that it is not a cheap place to travel, the prices were not as exorbitant as we expected them to be (with the exception of the gas prices). The cost of food, for example, felt like it was on par with eating at decent restaurants in Bay Area, California, where my siblings and I are from.

All of my siblings and I fell in love with Iceland. The people, the communities, the landscapes, all made us feel as though the seven days that we were there were not nearly enough. I hope we will all be able to return at some point in the near future and take even more of the country in.

Seljalandsfoss, a stunning waterfall with a near constant rainbow, was my favorite experience of the trip.
Seljalandsfoss, a stunning waterfall with a near constant rainbow, was my favorite experience of the trip.
One of the reasons Seljalandsfoss awed me was being able to stand behind the falls in a cavern-like alcove and watch the sun “set” behind the water. I had such a lovely moment of peace while I was there.

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The Stone and Waters of Venice

Water and stone are soothing to me, so it’s no surprise that I love Venice with its jade green canals and its stone pathways. As soon as I stepped onto those narrow streets last week, I felt calmed. I wore my hard heeled boots, so that each step clacked and resonated with the marble and Istrian stone of the buildings towering over me.

My friend and I didn’t do much traditional touring — no tours, no following long lines of crowds into well trodden iconic buildings. Mostly we just wandered, getting comfortably lost among the twisting, narrow streets. We let each turn lead us where it may, whether to some small, empty square or dead ending at a canal. We found our way into churches and observed their historic beauty in the dim light. Sometimes we were brought us to the door of some hidden-away restaurant, a quiet spot away from the bustle of San Marco Square.

Our second main focus of the trip — eating copious amounts of delicious pasta, pizza, fresh seafood, gelato. I was introduced to the Aperol Spritz, a bright red, lightly sweet and bitter drink that I included with almost every lunch or afternoon appetizer.

Walking by a real estate office, I was surprised to learn that the cost of purchasing or renting a home in the city is quite reasonable (particularly in comparison to my current rental prices in California). Of course, there are downsides to the city — massive crowds of tourists so thick you wan barely walk down certain streets, flooding that seems to be getting worse year by year. But a part of me still took a moment to daydream about living in Venice among all its stone and water and carving out an artists life of being perpetually lost in these labyrinthine streets, drinking coffee in the morning, Spritz in the afternoon, and writing to my heart’s content.

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Touring Petra

In the midst of our nine days in Egypt, my sister and I took a day tour into Jordan to visit Petra. This involved getting up at 3 a.m. for a two hour bus ride, one hour boat ride across the Red Sea, and another two hour bus ride, during which was had to pass through border control (and then the reverse for our return). It was a long journey for such a short (four hour) tour of Petra, but it was absolutely worth it.

Petra was the capital city of the Nabataeans, a nomadic people who used the city as a trading hub. The most famous structure is the “Treasury,” a tomb carved into a sandstone cliff at the end of a narrow gorge — a structure that was featured at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Treasury style is influenced by the Greek and Egyptian cultures. The upper level includes images of two Amazons, with the the Egyptian goddess Isis at the center. At the center of the middle band is Medusa, who acts as a guardian of the tomb. And there are other references as well. Watching the Treasury slowly be revealed as you walk(while dodging out of the way of speedily moving horse-drawn carts) down the narrow gorge is stunning.

The Treasury is the most famous structure at Petra.

But there is so much more to Petra than the Treasury. The rock formations alone are beautiful. And there are numerous tombs carved into cliffsides, as well as a theater, a church, a monastery and other structures. Altogether, my sister and I only saw a fraction of Petra (and even less of Jordan)  — and we were immediately struck with a desire to return and hike through more of the site.

Moving through a gorge in Petra.
Petra – the Royal Tombs
Petra – the Royal Tombs

Six Things I Loved About Egypt

When my sister and I told family and friends that we were planning to spend nine days touring through Egypt, we were often greeted with warnings — it was dangerous, they said, we should stay away. But that didn’t stop us.

Egypt was a phenomenal place to explore. Although there were annoyances (as there always are when traveling), both my sister and I felt safe during our nine days in Egypt. The food was (for the most part) great — often kebabs or chicken with rice, salad (a mix of cucumber and tomatoes), tahini sauce, and pita bread for dinner and falafels for breakfast in the mornings. We also tried and rather enjoyed koshari, a dish with rice, pasta, lentils, and fried onions with a red sauce.

My sister and I packed as much as two people could humanly pack into our nine days, visiting dozens of pyramids and tombs and temples while we were in Cairo and Luxor, as well as managing a trip to Dahab on the Red Sea and a day trip into Jordan to visit Petra (which I’ll talk about in a separate post). With the heat — which varied between oven and hell most days — and out packed itinerary, we were exhausted by the end but it was all worth every second. Here are a few of the moments I loved.

Continue reading “Six Things I Loved About Egypt”

Travels in South America (Part III): Argentina 

Wrapping up my journeys in South America — following Peru and Chile — my sister and I elected to drive across the border from Puerto Varas, Chile, into the Patagonia region of Argentina. Renting a car provides a freedom when traveling that going by public transportation and by foot does not. We were free to take any road we wanted, to wander and explore. Plus, the roads were well maintained and most people seemed to obey the traffic laws (at least as much as they do in the U.S.), so driving around Patagonia was fairly easy.

We drove past lakes and up into the mountains, where we quickly went through the border checkpoints (since it was the slow, winter season). In between each set of checkpoints is the actual border, welcoming drivers into Argentina on one side and into Chile on the other.

When I saw “we drove,” I should really clarify and say that my sister was the one to do the driving — and she hates driving. I would have been happy to drive, but since the car we rented was a manual transmission and I don’t know how to drive manual, she was stuck with it. She didn’t complain though, because it was some beautiful driving.

The twisty road we drove over and through mountains from Chile to Argentina.

Continue reading “Travels in South America (Part III): Argentina “