Day 5: The Friend Zone


I stand in the airport, with everything I own on my back.  The building is spacious but I’m constricted by a blur of commuters that brush past me like ghosts. Familiar smiling faces on advertisements shout at me in Dutch and remind me exactly how far I am from home.  In my right hand is a crinkled and worn ticket stub that I can’t stop staring at.  “Iceland Air – Reykjavik to Amsterdam: 07:15.”  My last scheduled flight.  And I’ve arrived.  I am absolutely, unequivocally, free.  And I can’t even breathe.

My hand constricts around the bristly paper, and my lungs inflate.  With a sudden burning sensation, I release the ticket from my grasp and it flutters casually into an empty trash bin, completely unaware of its own significance.  There are no more flight or train bookings.  I don’t even have a hostel reservation.  I can do literally, whatever I want.  I can go, wherever I want.  All my hard work and lack of planning has been successful.  I’m here. There is such a multitude of possibilities that all I can do is simply drop my bag and stare vacantly to the future.

What the hell am I doing?

Time passes.  Eventually a teenager approaches me with a twitch in his eye that matches his step and tries to sell me novelty Simpsons condoms.  Who doesn’t want to think about Bart as they’re doing it?  The encounter restarts the ol’ grey matter, like kick-starting an old engine.  I get rid of him and I’m left only with questions.  What do I do now?  What do I need?  What comes first?  How do I get to the city center?  I take out cash from an ATM.  That solves the first problem.  A question at the information desk tells me there’s a metro I can catch that goes straight to the center.  I turn around and the entrance is embarrassingly obvious.  Problem two: check.  On to problem three…

The Royal Palace in Dam Square

The train ride into the city gives me some time to look through my guidebook and find a couple names of places to stay.  I’m determined to keep away from the city’s sex-tourist lifestyle, (except for a few curious strolls), but nonetheless, a hostel on the rim of the city center catches my eye.  One simple phrase: “If you spend much time here, you’re sure to get laid.”  What can a 27 year-old guy on a drought do?  I jot down the address and close the book.

My own hypocrisy doesn’t escape me.  But with girls involved, a little hypocrisy is to be expected, especially on route to, shall we say, “a romantic encounter.”  Hell, I don’t even want to write the word.  Sex.  It’s always been a mostly undiscussed topic in my household, and even amongst most of my, let’s admit it, somewhat nerdy friends.

Back home my friends (the ones that were a little more successful with the ladies) would occasionally take me clubbing to try to meet some people.  So I’d go, I’d find a pretty girl, make eye contact with her, and fairly often she would make eye contact back.  And then…  I’d self-sabotage.  I would think maybe she wants to be alone, or maybe she’s tired of having dumb-ass guys come to hit on her. So I’d keep my distance and I’d tell myself I’m doing it for her sake.  It never even occurred to me that I rarely come off as a typical dumb-ass guy.

Perhaps even worse, if I was in a situation where I was forced to interact (with a friend of a friend for example), not only would I tell myself she doesn’t want to be bothered, I’d tell myself it’s better for her if I just go straight for the friend-zone.  After all, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience her with an unwanted come-on.

Thinking about it, maybe the main reason I decided to pursue this round the world dream, is to get some much needed confidence.  To start fresh and do a few things differently.  To change.  And what better place to start than Amsterdam.

I have to say, when chance chose the Netherlands as my first stop, my first thought was that I got off easy.  Somewhere like North Korea, or Sudan was just as likely.  But I’m starting to realize that a trip to what some would call the sex-capital of the world, might be far more difficult for me than avoiding a little gunfire.

A tourist boat floats lazily down a canal

The first bullet headed my way, comes in the form of a blond I see on the streetcar.  She has freckles and she’s got a bag with her too.  I watch her as the canals and old churches squeel by and I wonder how some people find it so easy to approach strangers.  I think of going over to say hi, but my tried and true excuse for not trying rears its ugly head again.  I cowardly stay in my seat and when she gets off, I still have one more stop to go.  I kick the back of the chair in front of me.  I just dodged that bullet with far too much effeciency.

Or so I think.

To find my hostel involves some backtracking along the tram’s route and it’s further than I expected.  Even so, after a long, cold winter in Canada, the sweat on my back is a nice change of pace.  I finally spot the hostel’s sign obscured by trees in an alley and to my surprise, find the same blond with an older woman at the check-in line in front of me.  “You’re the guy from the streetcar, right?” She says.  And just like that we begin to converse.  How do people do that so easily?  Her name is Tess.

She’s in a private room and traveling with her mother, which more or less means I don’t have a prayer.  My consolation prize however is the last bed in a shared 6 person dorm.  Tess and I plan to meet up later that night but for now, we go our seperate ways.  I leave the lobby with images in my mind of five beautiful, friendly, and single girls sharing the same room.  Possibly involved in a lingerie pillow fight of some sort.  I try not to get my hopes but every second out here is an opportunity; a chance for something great to happen.  Or not.  Maybe my room will be filled with old dudes, or maybe I’ll meet the girl I’m going to marry.  I can’t know until I open that door.  My anticipation climbs with every stair; one foot after another.  Three flights late I’m full to the brim.  I hesitantly enter my room, possessed by a feeling that could only be described by the very best of trashy romance novelists.  Five, early-twenties, English… males. Will my luck ever change?

Narrow street in Amsterdam city center

I throw my stuff on the last empty bed.   Naturally my bag is too big for the locker, and the lock I brought from home wouldn’t fit the damn thing anyway.  All I can do is grab my camera bag and hope hostels are as safe and crime-free as I’ve heard.   Time to hit the streets.

With nowhere to be, and no hostel to find, Amsterdam takes on a different light.  The magic comes out and I start to fall in love.   The monotony of a Burger King is spiced up by music and hustles for tips from a break-dancing streetshow.  Two tourists take photos like any other city, but that too is made unique by the smell of their joint, inconspicuously smoldering between two fingers.

The Doelen Hotel along the canals

Amsterdam has a series of water canals just like Venice.   They radiate out from the train station in circles like a great spiral.  I sit on one of the concrete banks next to a rack full of bicycles and just take it all in.  A seagull, rests in the murky brown water as a tourist boat drifts by.  A fat woman on board wearing a bright hawaiin shirt catches me in her camera sights, and a few others predictably follow her shooting angle.  I can’t help but laugh.  Tourists taking pictures of tourists.  It epitomizes this city.  As I sit, I hear English, French, Chinese and Spanish.  Where’s the Dutch?  It’s a surprise that the place can hold on to its beauty, despite being so overrun by foreigners.  Maybe that is its beauty.

Still, the realization gives me pause.  I’ve come so far from home, but am I really anywhere new?  For some reason I can think of nothing to do but head back to the hostel in search of a beer and a friend.

Tess meets up with me a little while later as do a couple guys that tend to get caught up in beautiful girls’ wakes.  One of them, a well-liqured New Yorker, thinks he’s got an in because he’s from the same country.  The other is a Brazilian rocking an awesome Spanish accent.  Desperation beads off of them like sweat under the summer sun and I promise myself never to be one of them.  I talk to her mother instead.  Nonetheless, despite being inherently aware of the two guys’ intentions, they’re actually pretty friendly, and all five of us let the evening drift by with a few Heinekiens and a little warmth overseas.

And even though, once again I’ve found myself in the friend-zone, I feel like I’m finally on the track to something better.  The adventure’s begun.  And tomorrow’s a new day.

Day 2: Independent


Vik, and Iceland’s South Coast

As a species, I think we define ourselves by moments and stretches of time.  Some of them are big, others miniscule.  My time in High School.  The time I lived in Toronto.  The time I watched all three Lord of the Rings movies back-to-back.  Which is more important? 

My most recent important time starts today.  Yesterday I stepped off a plane in Reykjavik.   Jet lag and my tour group made the day frantic and hazy, like a dream after a hard workout.  Now, the tour is finished.  I’m leaving Reykjavik.

The time I was truly on my own

But even the important times, can start with miniscule ones.  I sit in the small bus depot, writing in my journal as a girl walks by.  But I don’t look at her eyes, or legs or any other cliché bits that single, slightly desperate guys are known to watch for.  What really stands out is the sound of her heels as she walks to the café and back.   Clop, clop, clop.  I stop writing and just listen – until it fades. 

A large campground sits at the base of Skogafoss Waterfall.

I catch the bus and after a few hours it turns into a narrow canyon that opens up all around us.  There are a few small buildings, a large camping ground and a raging waterfall, tall and powerful, emptying into the valley.  Is this Vik?  No.  But we’re close.  I wish I’d brought my tent.  I could have spent the night camped at the base of the falls, listening to the thudding water as I drifted to sleep. 

My legs are bouncing.  I’m hungry and it’s getting late.  Why didn’t I leave earlier?  Airports, airplanes, busses and tour groups.  Three days of sitting and it’s finally got to me.  I want to pick a direction and run, jump, dance and do all those other things you see in the Gap commercials.  Every molecule in my body unites and screams:  Be free!

But I’m not free.  I have an outgoing flight in 3 days.  I’m on day two of my unplanned world tour and yet, I’m stuck.  I’m stuck in a bus.  I’m stuck with a plane ticket.  For three days, I’m stuck with a plan.  And I’m reasonably sure that no one with a plan has ever felt so restless.

The bus descends into a large valley that leads to the sea.  I see a small town in the distance.  It’s early evening and the sun is getting lower.  The light is getting redder.   It stops at a diner that doubles for a bus station; the doors hiss open and I quickly grab my bag.  Two girls are doing the same.  There’s a campground across the street and one of them has a tent dangling from her pack.  First the falls and now this.  I knew I would forget to bring something important.

Church on a hilltop in Vik, Iceland

The air is cool as I walk down the crumpling asphalt.  To my right, I can see the church, its white walls and red roof radiate atop a rich green hill.  Further in the distance, a huge field of yellow and purple buttercup flowers gradually grows in height.  I am energy.  Again I want to run.  Just dump my bag and run.  But I can’t.  For more than a year this bag is my home.  And you can’t throw away home. 

The first hotel is full.  They tell me to try another place.  I hurry over there.  It’s full too.  My back is sweating under the pack’s weight.  My steps have started to slow.  Someone points me to “the last place in town.”  It’s way down the road, close to the beach and seems miles away.  The sun is getting lower.  The light is getting duller.  The white walls of the church have stopped reflecting light, and I’m losing precious time.  The plane ticket to Amsterdam looms over my head.  Three days, three days, three days.  I want to be free, and my extra energy begins to fade.

I kick a stone as I walk.   It’s my second day and I can’t even find a place to sleep.  How am I going to handle jungles in South America and deserts in the Middle East if I can’t even find a hotel room in Iceland?  If this place is full, where can I sleep?  Maybe I can rent a tent from the campground.  Maybe just sleep outside in the grass.  I don’t have a tent but I do have a small inflatable matress.  I could always catch a bus back to the earlier waterfall.  There were a couple buildings there.  Maybe there’s a hotel.

But the last place in town has one last room available.  Literally the last bed in Vik.  I unload my bag and stroll back to the open field, defeated.  The sky is bloodied with clouds, and the land blanketed with flowers.  The sun lies ahead of me, at the valley’s mouth, but the incline of the ground is too steep for me to see it.  My shoes brush through the tiny flowers like a boat cutting through waves.  And just like that, all the energy and enthusiasm I had lost returns to me. 

I climb rise after rise, each time thinking it will bring me the view I know is ahead of me.  But each time the horizon gets pushed back further.  The flowers are beautiful, but I want the midnight sun.  Iceland lies on the border of the arctic circle, and the sun doesn’t set in summer, it just hovers along the horizon and heads back up again.

A cool wind is in my hair.  My shoes are wet with dew from the grass.  Dew at midnight?  I tell myself that eventually I’ll climb over a rise and it’ll be the last one.  It could be this one.  It’s not. 

With cramping stomach and tired legs, the last rise comes and the sun shines out at me from between the valley’s cliffs.  It turns a distant glacier orange and paints the grass in front of me with liquid gold.  Breathing hard, I sit in the damp brush…  and watch.  Hours pass.  The sun hides behind the cliffs in the distance.  The red clouds fade to yellow.  They’ll stay that color for hours.  It’s 3 am. 

The Midnight sun with a glacier in the background

The time I watched the midnight sun.


Day 3:

The rock formations called Reynisdrangar

Today is a more relaxed day.  There are no tours to catch, no sunsets to run to.  Only me, and Vik with a little time to try and figure out exactly what it means to be on my own.  I take a walk around town.  I see the church with obligatory cemetery; the peaceful streets, nearly devoid of people; and the occasional car or cyclist passing through on the ring road.  I decide to tackle one of the nearby cliffs to see what this place looks like from the high ground.  With my iPod set to Sigur Rós, I climb the steep winding path to the top.  The cliff is a nesting area for seagulls and there are dozens of them, flying circles in the air.  Sometimes they approach me curiously.  By the time I reach the top the wind has picked up so much that the birds flying into it are struggling just to hold their ground.  I watch one, flapping its wings with determination, yet going nowhere.  It finally turns to accept defeat and is gone in an instant.

I wonder what makes us climb.  I’m at the top of the tallest cliff in the region, and before me lies a large plateau.  But on this raised surface there are a few groups of boulders that add another five or six meters to the cliff’s height.  They sit there, taunting me, like reaching the observation deck on a skyscraper and realizing if you can just figure out a way to climb the antenna…  I can’t help but wonder what I could see with just a few more meters to work with. 

As I stare at those boulders, thinking about independence and being alone, I realize it’s not just the moments of time that define us.  I think it’s more what we choose to accomplish in those moments. 

So I do what anyone would do: I find a foothold, and a handhold, and then another foothold.  The wind wrenches at my jacket, testing me.  It’s only a few meters to the plateau but the ground is rough and rocky.  One slip and it may as well be a mile.  The wind charges at me again but I defy it.  The seagulls fly above with heads cocked and one eye on that climbing speck of a man in the distance.

I hoist myself up over the last boulder and stand triumphant on the top of the world.  And I realize with pride, I defined myself just a little bit better.  

The time I climbed the cliff in Iceland.

Day 1: Reborn


Iceland’s Golden Circle

Tourists stand on a lookout in front of Gullfoss

How do you react when a dream begins to materialize?  When it leaves the comfort of the mind and becomes merciless reality? Me?  I sleep like a baby.

I startle awake as the drink cart bangs my elbow and knee in quick succession.  My seat is reclined to the max and the in-flight movie is, well…  let’s just say I hope my other choices for the trip aren’t so disastrous.

What is the color of the Red Sea at dusk?  Are there internet café’s in Burma?  Do people really live in thatched huts in Africa or is that just a set the documentaries use?  Why am I such a fool with the ladies?  The world is mystery, shrouded in rumors, and these questions, among others, are why I sit on a plane with quickly bruising elbow and knee.  “I’ll take a Coke,” I say when the stewardess returns for round two.  The free carbonated sugar inclines me to forgive.

My life is filled with dreams.  With half-finished projects, could-have-beens and want-to-dos.  I recently graduated from University with an English degree.  It was boring.  Go figure.  I knew all along I wanted to study art (film), but stubbornly stuck with English, clinging to the hope it will improve my writing.  I want to make films.  I did then; I do now.  But it’s scary.

I chose to travel before real life was forced upon me.  Where?  Everywhere.  But where to start?  I spent a month contemplating, only to decide that I couldn’t decide.  I’d let fate choose for me.  Spinning the globe wasn’t random enough though.  I would know: Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere.  And really, what kind of a chance would a small country like Lichtenstein have?  I went online and was admittedly surprised when I had my choice of several “random country generators.”  I shut my eyes tightly and pressed the button.  Click.  I was to be vigilant.  No matter how distant, how obscure, how dangerous, the country.  This would be my future.  It would set the tone for everything to come.  If necessary I would risk my life to do what an obscure website told me.  I peeked out from between fingers. 

The Netherlands.

“Wow…”  I let out an audible sigh.  I was sure it would be Iraq or the Congo.  I eagerly booked a ticket.

And here I am, the plane is landing and I’m reading an article from the in-flight magazine about Australian aboriginals and their custom of walkabout.  Apparently, when someone in their society is unhappy, or wants to re-evaluate their life, they leave their possessions behind, find themselves a good pair of shoes, and just start walking.  They walk and walk and walk, sometimes for years, until they find themselves, sit down with themselves and ask what the hell am I doing with my life?  What follows is a profound exchange of ideas between conscious and subconscious, and if successful, the weary traveler will come back a changed, and better person.  Air-breaks tease me forward from my fully upright positioned seatback as the wheels bump along the runway.  I’ve finally arrived – in Iceland.  

Distant glacier near Geyser.

“Wait a second,” I hear you say.  “You said you’d risk your life to go to the Congo, but you can’t handle a non-stop to Amsterdam?”  “Well…” I retort.  “You see…” and I trail off.  But I did book a ticket to The Netherlands.  It just came with a stopover in Reykjavic, and with a little bit of persuasion, I was able to extend the stop to five days at no extra cost.  And with that, I share a lesson with you I learned before my plane even left the ground.  If you’re too inflexible, you’ll miss opportunities.  

As I sit on the bus from the airport an hour out of Reykjavic, adrenaline and coffee pump electric energy through my veins.  I look at the land passing by and I realize Iceland really is a land of elements.  Expansive glaciers, active volcanoes, singing wind caves and endless fields of rock are the mainstays here.  

With only five days in this land of myth and fables, there’s no time to waste (or sleep).  I crack open my trusty Lonely Planet and find a hastily circled passage.   The Golden Circle.  It’s the tourist event on the island.  Normally I’m not one for guided tours, but as I said, time is scarce.  The tour hits the big three: Geyser (the one all others are named after), Gullfoss (the biggest and perhaps most dramatic waterfall in the country), and Þingvellir (a beautiful national park).   

On the tour bus there’s one other younger guy named Wade, and we begin to talk.  He’s a womanizing, Aussie surfer and a veritable bag of clichés and stereotypes.  I like him immediately.   

Geyser's smaller cousin

The geyser shoots skyward, two, three, and four stories tall.  And it’s not even the big one.  Geyser itself has decided to take the afternoon off.  Instead Wade and I stand around gawking at its “smaller” cousin.  The smell of sulfur permeates our nostrils and steam rises from pools all around us and seeps into our pores.  Have you ever heard an entire tour group go silent?  A hundred cameras silently burn a hundred photos of white water on white sky to their memory cards.  I’m one of them.  As the geyser implodes with a final sigh, I have to fight the urge to walk over and touch the pool of water ominously bubbling in its place.  But Wade’s a step ahead of me.  We move over to a less threatening pool and Wade puts his pointer in without thinking.  He yanks it back in shock and shakes his hand dramatically.  But his pain isn’t quite enough to let me infer just how hot it is.  I hesitantly dip my pinky in and quickly pull it back.  Damn!  I blow on my pinky and the wind cools it.  We walk away with throbbing fingers and no exact temperature measurements to be found but I hear another tourist curse in pain behind us as he tries to take his own.  Humans are so strange. 

Iceland's largest waterfall

A few minutes down the road is Gullfoss, a huge waterfall cascading into a giant chasm as if it was ripped directly from Norse mythology.  To get as close as possible to the mouth, it’s a long slippery decline past young couples, old couples, groups of friends, small families and an Asian tour that jams up on the only staircase to take group photos.  It feels a little weird squeezing through people and ruining pictures just to get to the falls a little quicker, but my usual tour group psychosis is in full swing and I feel as if there’s no time to properly experience the place.  A few apologies later I’m free enough to stroll to a lower cliff-edge in the middle of the monstrous falls and let the cool freshwater spray clean the sulfur from my skin.  I sit on the rocks and water soaks through the rear of my trousers.  I watch the small bugs walk across the wet rock.  I’m too tired to philosophize, instead I look up and just absorb.  Delicacy, enchantment, risk, freedom, the unknown, tranquility and of course, power.  Right there, in one second, it’s everything that I expect to be thrust upon me in my travels.  Wade comes to get me.  The bus is leaving.    

The national park is beautiful, as expected, but unfortunately it comes with expectations set far too high by Geyser and Gullfoss.  Wade and I simply enjoy a nice walk along the edge of the valley and discuss events to come.  Icelanders are famous all-night partiers and despite having a rather tame nightlife back home, I’m eager for the chance to get out of my shell and well, simply put, meet some girls.  We agree to take a quick nap when the bus drops us off and meet up just before midnight.    

But it’s my first day, I’m jetlagged, and I’m still working out the kinks in my brand new watch’s alarm.  I wake at 4am in a haze and I fast become coherent enough to damn my watch with gusto.  I’m normally notorious for staying at home and maybe it’s because of the opportunity to meet girls, or drink, or socialize, or maybe just missing the possibility of new experiences but I can’t get back to sleep.  Wait, I think to myself, it’s Iceland and it’s only four.  Everyone will still be there.  I sit up, nearly ready to get dressed and go, but for some reason I don’t have the energy to stand.  My lungs deflate and with it so does my strength.  What’s wrong with me?  Wade will be happy to see me.  I’ll just make a joke about my new watch.  But what if he’s moved on to a different place?  I want so much to have the courage to do something out of my normal routine.  To party in Iceland with the midnight sun.  My head does a freefall into the pillow and as I rest in bed with my eyes wide open, I realize I don’t know anything about myself.  I’m not even sure I like myself, and to my surprise I’m not really travelling the world at all.  I’m on walkabout.