Iceland 3:  Purpose and Snow Pants

Snow pants. Insulated, waterproof, snow-white pants. Planning the big Icelandic trip, somehow these were necessary. Or rather they were on sale at REI and, after I looked at them twice, they followed me around the internet. But I thought this through. What were the obstacles to fulfilling my trip goals of northern lights, glaciers and horses? Being cold…or wet… or cold and wet. The pants were an investment in the dream.

There is a deep stream of true in knowing your priority and purpose. This is an obvious truth in life but for me, it is an absolute when I travel alone. Going to relax or to ‘have a good time’ is too ephemeral for me. If I know what I am about, then choices fall into place. The old flaws of chickening out or defaulting to an easier plan B ease.

Saturday night, my arrival at the high end hotel I had so looked forward to seeing was a little rocky.  The public areas were beautiful, but closed for a Christmas buffet. The hot tubs were full of children. My room was eventually quite wonderful but at first glance had a retro-state-park-knotty-pine style. But smaller.

The other guests were testy. They too were here to see the lights but seeing the Northern Lights proved more about arguing over your ISO setting and the tripod than seeing wonders of the heavens. With your eyes. In the moment.

So, the hotel staff telephone your room when light activity starts. The first round at midnight was a cold and chilly disaster. When the phone rang again at 2:30 a.m., I had doubts. (I could hear the photogs setting up outside my room’s window.) And my morning plan was to leave at 7 and make a long drive to get to the glacier pool to see the sunrise over the ice.

Here is where it started. It was very tempting to stay inside and warm. I had an early morning ahead. And furthermore, the much heralded buffet didn’t start until 9 a.m., long after my take off. I deserved a sleep in, it was a little scary to drive in the dark, and why would I miss the much reviewed breakfast buffet in the morning? The glaciers would still be there at noon.

Clearly, This is not end of the world stuff but you can feel the adjustments and the scaling down beginning. If I took the easier travel path this night, I would have had more sleep tomorrow.  If I postponed even my departure, I could enjoy the hotel. I would also lessen the risk of telling off the grouchy Brits outside my window struggling with more camera than they could handle. But how would I feel later? Would that slow and insidious feeling of everything being less begin?

So, I got up and put on the bright white puffy pants, 2 Buffs, double gloves and resolutely stomped out. I stomped out to put myself square in the possibility of seeing those lights. The pants were great. I was warm and I stood there for over an hour.

I only marginally saw aurora activity, but standing there, we all saw the miracle of the clouds rolling back from the southern horizon until revealing, at last, the whole huge sky of stars brighter than any I’ve seen. In a week of forecasts of 100% cloud cover and rain, it was magic.

A few hours later, at six, I hauled out of bed and made that dark drive with the solid knowledge that I had come and done just what I planned and worked and wanted to do.

Yes, I did tell off the Brits. It was a Dixie Carter, fire batons over Georgia, milestone moment for a courteous traveler. And true, I could barely stay awake at the end of the day Sunday as I drove back, even singing classic rock as loudly as possible with hand motions.

But what I had was  the buoyant, unconquered glow of success for which I had come to Iceland.


Solo Travel and the Do-Over

My last morning in Spain found me chasing the moon across Mallorca, driving pre-dawn through fields as the ‘super moon’ set on the horizon. I had just completed a week-long riding clinic. It was a big ending to an unexpected trip.

Expectations with travel are complex. What do you see when you look back over your travels? What has changed for you as you try new things or become more at ease? More importantly, why do you travel?

For me, what began as week-long explorations of single cities (which I highly recommend) or hopping trains across a country I love has now evolved to adventures that add more and more challenge.

Pushing myself with a new challenge brings me home with more confidence and assurance in what I can do in everyday life. There is always learning – figuring out public transport, acclimating to the pace, and managing to buy a coffee in Italy. (It’s not easy.) By the end of the trip, you find the perfect view, buy the coffee, begin to feel at home in a new place and at home in your own skin.

New challenges are an important part of why I go solo. On recent trips, I’ve done  more driving and spent more time out in the natural landscape. So fewer museums, more mountain roads.

This past year was a new step for me with solo travel.  As I passed a big birthday, I wantedto reclaim a hobby or skill from my past, something I could reclaim and keep.  So after almost a year of lessons, off I went to Mallorca for a week of horse riding.

If you are a school or a course junkie, you may have had thoughts about a cooking or language immersion or, like me, a school for equitation.  I learned a little more than I expected – I realized that what  makes this travel work are the constant opportunities to start over!  Yes, the Do-Over.

When you are alone in Iceland and do something unbelievably stupid, you make it back to the hotel, (in my case dry off), get a good night’s sleep, and start over! While you are conquering the world, the presence of strangers allows you to make mistakes, step back, try again and hopefully take the day…eventually.

With a week-long class or clinic, you have an epic fail, get a good night sleep, get up and see the same people again at breakfast.  I am not a good rider.  I learned this in bold new ways on my trip. Most of the experience was spectacular…but part of it was likIMG_0260 (2).JPGe being back in high school gym class but with better and more expensive workout gear.

My best moments were when I slipped away in the snappy blue Fiat I rented and navigated the hill towns on Mallorca, found hidden backroads, and learned how to pay a parking ticket (all of this as you can imagine is related).

Push, try new things, leave time for complete relaxation – but as you travel, you’ll become more aware of where you find your joy.  What’s next for me?  Train hopping across a country I love – the one I call home!

What I Learned

  • If you are looking at a learning trip, think about the pace. Is there time for your own adventures? Do you love meeting new people and cherish the group time? What do you want the experience to be like?
  • If it’s learning a skill, give it up a little. It won’t be the same – the accents will differ, the horses won’t have the same gaits, the cooking measurements aren’t as familiar, the instructor has a different approach.  Be ready to shift.
  • Start below your perceived skill. Take the pressure off. Who doesn’t want to be promoted once you are there?
  • Most of all, appreciate the journey itself. I wouldn’t trade moment of my year of lessons preparing for the trip. It was the best part but it took planning a trip to get me started!


Adventure with a Purpose

Look at your bucket list.

What do you see? Destinations, journeys, experiences, some personal challenge that makes sense only to you? Travel is a big part of my life list – to cross every Parisian bridge over the Seine, to walk the walls of Carcassonne, to have time to “be” in a place, to gain the knowledge to move through a place.

Acqua Alta. After the loss of a friend in 2009, I took a long look at my list. In that very moment, I stopped and bought tickets for a winter journey to Venice in hopes of experiencing something that had always fascinated me – the high water phenomenon in Venice. If not now, when?

Setting off on a trip with a clear focus is the best kind of selfish. I would not put anyone else through the reality that Venetian majesty might well be dimmed with fog, rain and chill. And 2 feet of water. That we’d be substituting a cozy dark bar with port for the sunny Lido.  The trip circled around what intrigues me and me alone.Flood Behind Inst. of Letters

It was a singular type of adventure – everything from the date (full moon, winter) to the hotel (great public spaces) and to the space in my luggage for my new Wellington boots – was structured around a behind the scenes look at Venice and the winter high water.

So, I left the week of my birthday and arrived on a cloudy Sunday, with a certainty of why I was here in a city stringing its Christmas lights, buttoning its jacket, turning inward.

It was a trip built on chance but it all happened. On my first morning, I awoke to the high water alarms and through my window watched the water overtake the hotel pier. (It was worth every cubic inch of suitcase space those boots required.)

It was everything I hoped, seeing behind the tourist veil to how Venetians live in a city on stilts, walking with grandmothers across temporary plywood risers to cross the square, standing in a foot of water waiting for my morning coffee with office workers, and seeing the dignified staff of the Europa & Regina clearing the marble hall of water before other guests descended! I saw and learned so much but after that morning, after the flood, I was off the clock. The rest of the glorious week had earned its spontaneity and ease. I had seen what I came to see and now each day was an open ticket.

For 2014, it was Iceland and the Aurora Borealis. It was a long shot – in deep winter, in Iceland, in 5 hours of daylight. Putting myself in the path of possibility.

What is still on the list? What must I do on my own? What would a partner never understand? What will I regret if I wake up one morning unable to go on such a trip?

What are we hoping for – in our travel, our hobbies, our loves? For me, it may be completeness. What will I resolve, put to rest, fulfill? What will add up to a life well-lived when I face the unexpected end?

I hope that by the end of my time on the planet I become wise, whole, kind and loving with a sense of humour and surprise. And I want to have reached out for all the planet wanted to show me.

Where are you going?

What I Learned

  1. Having a single goal, something you feel passion around, gives a sense of purpose, priority and structure to a trip on your own.
  2. Picking a hotel with great public spaces is a valuable investment. You need a place around people where you can read, email and watch the parade of life.
  3. The hotel staff is your home team. Let them know why you’ve come and what you hope to experience. A clear and passionate purpose can be irresistible and you may find unexpected help.