HomeTravelsWhat I learned when covid unexpectedly extended my vacation in Iceland

What I learned when covid unexpectedly extended my vacation in Iceland

The queue for Icelandair at Keflavik Airport, near Reykjavik, was long enough that travelers groaned audibly as they approached.

I moaned too, my anxiety mounting as the line grew longer. I’m the type of traveler who likes to get to my door two hours early, and I could tell the line was going to be the biggest hurdle. I stood to the side, awaiting the results of my coronavirus test before I could check in for my flight to Seattle. Every minute or so I refreshed the messaging app on my phone, as if that would speed up the process.

When my phone rang, it was a relief. Then I saw the word “positive”. A fist of terror hit my body.

My trip to Iceland was for a quick injection of adventure: trekking through ice caves, riding around Vestmannaeyjar on a rigid inflatable boat (RIB), exploring black sand beaches. I had hoped that this would help me temporarily shake off the catastrophe of current events and add some spice to my life. But I only had five days, that was all I could do between work deadlines and family obligations.

Iceland’s new road route explores the remote north

The coronavirus was not part of the plan. As someone with severe asthma, I spent over two years fearing the virus, but also avoiding it. I am vaccinated. I wear N95 masks indoors and around groups of people. I carry more hand sanitizers than a CVS. But there are a lot of things that I believe I can control until I can’t – and this was one of them.

Testing positive meant I had to stay in the country for another five days before I could get a certificate that would allow me to return home. (U.S. regulations changed on June 12, the day after my isolation ended, and the country no longer requires a negative coronavirus test for entry.)

Instead of scrambling to find a place elsewhere, I decided to return to Hotel Rangá, a boutique lodge in the rugged countryside of southern Hella, where I had stayed for the duration of my trip. It was a bet; the property is beautiful, but it is isolated. If I needed emergency care, I would be about a 90 minute drive from Reykjavik, the capital. But I also thought it was important to be somewhere I already felt comfortable, and Hotel Rangá was the closest thing to home in Iceland.

On the way to the hotel, I sat in the back seat of a car, masked, as I cried and apologized to the driver for potentially exposing him. The driver was reassuring, gentle, kind. He said he was not concerned about covid.

“I’ll take you to a store for some vitamins.” We will get everything you need and everything will be fine,” he said. “Þetta reddast.”

It was a common Icelandic phrase I had heard earlier and asked about a few people – Þetta reddast (pronounced thet-ta red-dhast). Some even say it is the country’s unofficial motto, encapsulating the hardy spirit of people in the land of fire and ice.

“It means, ‘Don’t worry, things will work out one way or another.’ This is the most important thing you need to know about Iceland,” emphasized Fridrik Pálsson, owner of Hotel Rangá.

The saying is underscored by naivety, Pálsson said. It’s an almost childish belief that everything will be fine, even when things seem impossible.

It makes sense that Icelanders embrace this idea. When your island has been shaped by eruptions, endures extreme weather, and is literally torn along a huge rift, everything else has to feel manageable. It’s the kind of fierce optimism you cultivate living on the edge of the habitable world.

In Iceland, a geothermal bath is the ultimate panacea

However, it was difficult for me to find hope in an inspiring slogan. I was over 4,000 miles from my husband and 7 year old son in California, I was sick and scared. On FaceTime, my son asked me if I was going to die. I couldn’t confidently give him an answer.

This first day of isolation, I did not leave my room. Fortunately, my symptoms remained mild. I watched “Bridgerton” on my laptop, emailed to cancel appointments, and ate a granola bar from my snack bag. A woman from reception called to make sure I was okay, and she encouraged me to put on a mask and walk around the hotel.

In Iceland, the coronavirus was viewed with a casualness that seemed shocking. The country lifted all restrictions in February and those who test positive are not required to self-isolate. (My stay was an American requirement.) Although I was reluctant to be around people, I pushed my way out.

My bedroom opened directly onto a scene taken from my dreams. A beautiful field of purple lupines unfolded into a vast carpet of lavender, which extended to a ribbon-like river that wrapped around the hotel. I sat on a wooden bench and gazed into the distance, where volcanoes loomed and glaciers shimmered. I wondered if I was about to get sicker or better.

Þetta reddast, I reminded myself.

The next day, I walked slowly to the nearest road. The hotel delivered food to my room for every meal. The weather seemed spongy, as in June the night rarely gets dark. The midnight sun shone pink and gold, the sky so beautiful I could barely bear to close the blackout curtains.

Each day grew warmer. At the start of my trip, I wore three coats stacked on top of each other, but during the isolation I lost my layers. When I walked towards the river, the sun warmed my body, which felt calm, loose, untangled. While the lupines had first captured my attention, I began to notice other flowers: wild pansies the size of my fingernail scattered in the grass, marsh marigolds dotting the water’s edge, tufts of thyme woven into slabs of foam.

One evening, I ate apple pie, then soaked in water heated by hot springs. The abundance of beauty almost moved me to tears. The air was crisp and the nearby mountains seemed to spring from a pop-up book. Oystercatchers chirped with slender, orange beaks and jumped nimbly as I walked back to the hotel, following me like I was Snow White. I no longer wondered why some Icelanders believe in a world shaped by huldufólk (hidden people) and invisible forces.

On the day of my rescheduled Icelandair flight, I had a travel certificate from the health authorities in hand, but I was sorry to leave this place where darkness never came.

I thought about my ice cave hike over a week earlier. Crampons on my boots, I advanced across the glacier, one step at a time, emerging into a landscape of braided rivers and jagged rocks. It was a place that could never be experienced the same way twice. As hard and solid as it seemed, it was constantly softening, breaking, evolving.

Everything is changing in Iceland, I learned. I also felt the change in me.

I arrived looking for thrills, but what I found instead was a new perspective for uncertain times: Þetta reddast. Although the saying is a seed of hope, it is also an admission that the world is wild and unstoppable. Whatever happens, it will all come together one way or another. And he did.

Downs is a writer based in Palm Springs, California. His website is maggieink.com. Find her on Instagram: @maggieink.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

Must Read