A love letter to post-pandemic travel
Many of us have been wondering how it will feel to get on a plane again, step on to foreign soil or visit an iconic location for what feels like the first time. For veteran travel writer Jamie Lafferty, who’s been flying around the world for 14 years, his first trip post-pandemic was a moment. He takes High Life through it…
There’s a story I like to tell about Iceland, about my first visit there and a woman working in Reykjavik’s bus station who kept stubbornly speaking to me in Icelandic until I blurted out: “But I’m not from here!”
“Are you absolutely sure?” she then asked in suddenly smooth English. “You really look like you are.”
By this I hoped she meant strong and handsome, but more likely it was because of my blue eyes and blond hair. Anyway, over the next couple of years, I told this little story about her belligerent insistence that I was Icelandic enough times that I was eventually bought a home DNA testing kit, the sort designed to trace a person’s genetic origins. A week or so after I sent off the swab, the results confirmed that I am 20 per cent Scandinavian. The woman had been at least partially right.
These days, the results of home testing kits have much bigger stakes, of course. Yet as I set out to travel to Iceland for the first time in nine years – and my first time travelling anywhere in seven months – the forthcoming PCR nasal invasions seemed like a fairly minor inconvenience.
Icelandic authorities made the nine-day trip a lot easier than expected – my being double vaccinated meant that I’d only need one Covid test on landing, which their government would cover. Getting there was inevitably a bit more complex, the airport filled with a mass sense of something between confusion and nervousness, but – months into the traffic light system – there was some admirable efficiency, too.
Yet, when I finally got on the flight to Reykjavik, little had really changed. I was given a bag of hand sanitiser and had to keep my mask on, but otherwise it was all pretty familiar. I surveyed the cabin with wary eyes, looking for potentially noisy kids and with suspected mask violators now added to my karmic hit list. In the end, though, the list grew no longer.
From the air, Iceland doesn’t look much like a fantasy destination. There aren’t the satisfying turquoise waters of the Caribbean, nor the shimmering cities of Europe. Its black lava rock looks angry and unsettled, which it often is – as does the weather, to which the same applies. But then you don’t come to Iceland for a tan. You come for the fjords and the northern lights, the glaciers and the volcanos.
After almost a decade of absence, I was eager to get down there and to get outside. But first I had to be tested at Keflavik Airport, then pick up a rental car and head to my quarantine hotel to await the result (n.b. as of August 2021, there is no longer a requirement to quarantine while awaiting arrival test results). With so many new rules and procedures, I didn’t really have a chance to get down on my knees and gratefully kiss foreign soil, but halfway to the hotel I realised I hadn’t even driven a car for over a year.
My guide explained the lockdown helped the volcano’s birth. For a time, it was exclusively there for any hardy Icelanders able to hike over the mountains
Mercifully the Covid all-clear arrived in the evening and so the next morning I drove south to an ill-defined spot east of the town of Grindavík. Pulling over at a temporary car park, Eythor Saemundsson waved me down. A representative of the Reykjanes Peninsula tourist board, he was there to escort me to Iceland’s newest volcano and Instagram icon, Fagradalsfjall.
Before we got going, though, something weird happened: Saemundsson stuck his hand out. At first I cocked my head and looked at it like a baboon being presented with a smartphone. I had a rough idea of what was supposed to happen next – I’d seen it on TV – but, as I put out my own paw to offer what was once known as a ‘handshake’, everything felt a bit weird.
Or it did for about half a second, anyway. Iceland is a land of extraordinary things, but this simple, heartbreakingly normal gesture was its first miracle.
The second one was about a 50-minute hike away.
Fagradalsfjall started erupting in mid-March and, at the time of writing, is still going strong, popping regularly though spectacularly, much like a geyser, albeit one that is forever changing the topography of the country. Saemundsson looked on it as a gift, a way to encourage people to come not just to his little-visited region, but to Iceland as a whole: “For it to be arriving now, after everything that’s happened and with people needing a reason to travel…” He trailed off, but I knew what he meant.
As we hiked along the rough-hewn path towards the volcano, my guide explained that, in a way, the lockdown helped during the volcano’s birth, too, restricting the number of foreign visitors until local authorities could get a handle on how to grant safe access to this extraordinary site. For a time, it was exclusively there for any hardy Icelanders able to hike over the mountains.
By the time we arrived, the crowds still weren’t massive, but they really should have been. Watching the lava spew from the belly of the Earth was something that will stay with me for the rest of my life – there was something incredibly primordial about it, something very real and vital. The longer I stared into the orange caldera, the more I thought about renewal and rebirth, of time moving in a different way over the pandemic, much as it does geologically. Watching the volcano felt like witnessing proof that the Earth is always regenerating from within, even when life has been stalled on its surface.
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