Another World: Into Iceland’s Glacial Caves

The ice in that photograph is more than 1000 years old, and was formed before anyone lived on the island. It moves forward in the Vatnajökull Glacier, slowly encroaching on the sea. Surprisingly, the last glacial maximum for Iceland was only about 110 years ago!

We drove out of Hvergardi after our first night in Iceland, through the tiny village of Vik and to the middle of nowhere. The ring road was not finished in this area until the 1970s, and completed the circle around the tiny and yet vast country. Iceland’s ring road drives through microclimates and fairytale landscapes, with constantly changing weather. The day we arrived, it was raining. The next, perfect conditions for climbing into the belly of the glacier. Frozen, bright, and dry.

After our three hour drive, we arrived at Hotel Skaftafell. We could see it for fifty miles on the horizon, at the edge of a massive glacier that glowed blue in the perpetual twilight. Tiny, twinkling lights that grew only slightly bigger as we approached.

The hotel is nothing too special, but it reminded me of the hiking hotels in the Rockies that I grew up with and the ones in the Alps I visited on my solo visit to Switzerland in 2009. Deathly soft, warm beds. BBC Northern Ireland. Warm shower. All you need, and the warm welcome of staff who seemed surprised that we had chosen to stay three days in the middle of winter.

We got up and dressed in what would turn out to be a few too many layers, and tied our weatherproof boots on tight. A 45 minute drive into the expansive, white desolation awaited us. We passed tiny villages with names posted, some of which seemed to be little more than a farmhouse. Could it be that the name of the family that lives there is on the sign?

The mountains to our left were lit up by the time we arrived at Jökulsárlón, the Ice Lagoon. The glacier breaks off and runs wildly into the sea, leaving 1000-year-old shards on the black sands of the beach. It was exactly 0 degrees C outside, and the gravel was frozen solid. IMG_6425 IMG_6433

I tried to follow Russell up that gravel mound on the left there and found my GoreTex boots were poorly suited to the task. The only way to get back down was to slide on my butt on the frozen gravel. All the way down. About 40 feet of sliding. I ripped my brand new travel pants and my base layer when I dragged my butt across a jagged rock.


It was a small price to pay for the sheer beauty of the place. IMG_6435 IMG_6439

Black sand ice beach, Jökulsárlón, Glacial Lagoon

Black sand ice beach, Jökulsárlón, Glacial Lagoon

With the sea

With the sea

Like glass

Like glass

We met up with our guide, Oscar from Ice Guides, and the other ten or so people ready to clamber into his giant rig. He told us that the conditions cannot get any better than the ones on that day. The caves are very sensitive, so they react badly when it rains. IMG_6492

We drove in the giant van for about 20 minutes, turning early off the ring road and into the middle of apparent nowhere. Down huge banks of a frozen river, and across the ice of the river itself. The glacier loomed huge and blinding in front of us, and we pulled up to the entrance of the ice cave. Oscar left his driver’s door wide open and helped us into some basic pull-on crampons. Helmets on, and we were ready to go.

I’m gonna step aside here and just let the ice cave speak for itself.

It’s like no place we’ve ever been, and we’ve been a fair few places. It was magical. Ephemeral. The glacier is changing, and every time I’m in a polar region I feel like it might not be at all the same the next time I’m able to come by. The ancient ice is receding, all over the world. More rapidly than anyone thought. We were incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and the tour was worth every króna. It was special. A huge travel experience for our honeymoon.

When the ice cave tour was over, we wandered down to the glassy water of the lagoon at sunset. The oddly-placed ducks who filled some areas of the lagoon came over, wondering if we had bread to share. We continued on, and some mother seals lazily wound their way through the giant icebergs, playing in the light reflected off the surface while their babies rested further away. Russell had a whole conversation in snorts with one of them, who reminded me of the many hundreds we saw on the Norfolk coast last year. They had reign over the lagoon in the afternoon, all the tourists safely packed back into their busses and rental cars.

As of today, the glaciers are a part of an eruption on Iceland. The stripes indicate areas that are no longer safe for hikers or drivers. The star is where the Ice Lagoon is, and the oval is roughly where Hotel Skaftafell falls. 

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 20.50.37

The ice cave tour was easily worth it, and the best thing to do in Iceland. Once the sun began to set, we headed back to our hotel and had a traditional Icelandic dinner of head cheese, hard rye bread, whale blubber, sheep testicles, and Hákarl (fermented shark). A pint of Viking lager was needed to wash it all down, but we felt ready to pillage some villages after such a fatty meal. A perfect, magical day in Iceland. 

Next Time: The long drive back to The city. A preview…


My Travel List

Torres del Paine, June 2011

Torres del Paine, June 2011

Yes. This is a travel list. Yes. This can be a hackneyed practice. Like my Mama taught me to say as a two year old, “Oh well!”

I know my last post was a bit depressing. It wasn’t really meant to be, but the darkness that is slowly taking over as winter approaches must have seeped in. Also, I wrote it in the minutes before leaving for work, with no time to proofread for existential crises.

This post is a lot more positive. I may have attenuated my expectations, but I have not given up on dreaming. I have not given up on travelling, the one true sinew running through my life. The red string of fate (紅線) brought me to the man I will marry in about two weeks’ time through travelling, and I believe that it pulls us inextricably onwards…on to the next place, on to the next adventure.

The next adventure is still hazy, but then I’ve learned to be comfortable in the fog. In six months’ time, I might be writing from the same place. But I might be writing from a world away, in a village I’ve never known. In Saigon, in Kuala Lumpur, in Shanghai, in Busan. I spent time today in Dalston, London…it reminded me forcefully of the Bronx.

After 36 (38?) hours of travel in 2011. Chile to Peru.

After 36 (38?) hours of travel in 2011. Chile to Peru.

I’m making a list. I want to check it off. I want to see these places and to live the biggest, broadest life possible. I remember standing in someone’s backyard, the summer before I began my last year of high school, crying. I was at a graduation party, I think. For a friend of my high school boyfriend. I didn’t know what had upset me. It was probably someone talking about mortgages, again (a long and burdensome theme in my life). Get out of high school, go to college, get married, get a house, work, retire, die. My poor constant and helpful high school sweetheart tried to console me.

“I just want a broad and beautiful life.”

I was 17, and pretty idiotic most of the time (thank the gods of the Internet there was no Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat when I was that age). But then, I could see myself being upset over the same things ten years later next spring, in 2015. I still want that broad and beautiful life. I am a traveller above all else. Above the M.A. at the end of my name. Above my current work as a bee who fetches delicious, intoxicating nectar for others in the hive. Just look at that picture after 36 hours of travel and one of the worst bus journeys I’ve ever endured, taken in a Chinese Wanton Soup shop in Puno, Peru. So happy.

Machu Picchu 2011

Machu Picchu 2011- A bucket list moment.

So, a list. Hopes. Goals. Concrete ones. Nothing to do with money, except as a means to an end. I’ve made a lot of travel feats so far, but there is infinitely more to do.

I will see these places in my lifetime. I promise that. Hold me to it.

Middle East – A challenge. Let’s do this.

  1. Petra
  2. Turkey
    1. Istanbul
    2. Somewhere less safe
  3. Jerusalem
  4. Tehran (I hold out hope for a free Iran in my lifetime)
  5. Dubai
  6. Abu Dhabi
  7. Mecca (I wish!)

Central Asia – Wide open spaces

  1. Kazakhstan
  2. Dushanbe, Tajikistan (because of the teahouse back home)

  3. Odessa
  4. The Himalayas (yes, I’ve technically already been there, but just the foothills)
  5. Nepal
  6. Leh, India

East Asia – The call has always been strong here

  1. Mongolia
  2. Irkutsk
  3. Siberian Forests (the Taiga)
  4. Chengdu
  5. Xi’an
  6. Shanghai
  7. Beijing
  8. Many Chinese cities that westerners don’t always know
  9. Hong Kong
  10. Busan
  11. Jeju
  12. Japan (especially the North and Kyoto)

Southeast Asia – Possibly the next stop

  1. Ha long Bay (Vietnam)
  2. Hanoi
  3. Mekong Delta
  4. Kuala Lumpur
  5. Angor Wat
  6. Indonesia
  7. Many many other places….

Oceania – Unexplored territory

  1. Australian Outback (and the rest…I feel a kindred nationhood with Australia, being from the vast Western USA)
  2. New Zealand
  3. Tahiti
  4. Bikini Atoll (radioactive, I know. I need to see how we are become Death, destroyer of worlds)
  5. Nauru
  6. Rapa Nui

Africa – One of two Continents I’ve never set foot on

  1. The Great Rift Valley
  2. Oldowan Gorge, South Africa
  3. Cape Town
  4. Accra, Ghana
  5. The big slave trade castles of the West African coast (I need to testify to their existence and the feeling they have)
  6. Egypt
  7. Tunisia
  8. So many many other places

Europe – Travelled a lot here, but nowhere near finished

  1. Poland
  2. Prague
  3. Eastern European countrysides in various countries
  4. Serbia
  5. Sarajevo (my great-grandmother Lela said this was one of the most beautiful places she ever went…I have to see it)
  6. Iceland
  7. Skelefteå (land of my Swedish forebears)
  8. Norway
  9. St. Petersburg
  10. Sicilia
  11. Cyprus
  12. Greece
  13. Mont St. Michel, France
  14. The catacombs of Paris
  15. STONEHENGE (relatively easily accessible)
  16. The Scottish Highlands
  17. Bruges
  18. Berlin
  19. So many many more places

South America – I lived on the extreme, still need to see others

  1. Sao Paulo
  2. Mendoza
  3. Caracas, Venezuela
  4. Bogota, Colombia
  5. Coyhaique, Chile
  6. Villarica, Chile
  7. The Amazon
  8. Uruguay
  9. more of Bolivia
  10. Mexico (especially Chitin Its a)
  11. Nicaragua
  12. Costa Rica (living here, maybe!!!!)

North America – Yes, I’m from here…there is still more to see

  1. Vancouver
  2. Seattle
  3. Alaska  – especially Denali
  4. Montreal
  5. Maine
  6. New Orleans
  7. More of Los Angeles
  8. The Appalachian Trail

And finally…SPACE! When I am an old woman with nothing to lose, I want to go into orbit.

DMZ Day Part Four: Footprints On The Tables

This is the fourth of many blogs from the most eventful day I’ve had in Korea, in nearly eight months since moving here. October 6, 2012…you were a beast.

Shutters click. Voices mumble in soft tones. There are footprints on the tables, clearly not cleaned off in a while.

Someone is asking where the footprints came from.

“When the North Koreans have their own tours,” Ahmed explains, “They encourage their tourists to put their feet on the tables and remove their shoes, in order to disrespect the peace process.”

In fact, the footprints are clearly visible, along with slightly smudged hand prints. It’s strange to think that the closest I might actually get to touching someone on the North Korean side might be to share the cold germs left on the table by their hands.

Ahmed announces that we have but two minutes left in the little room. I make an attempt at doing a “Where The Hell Is Matt?” dance in front of one of the ROK soldiers.

Where the Hell is Coleen?

It’s a lot harder than it looks to be so calm and goofy on the border of a major conflict, but then that’s somewhat the point of Matt’s videos…bringing humans together to experience this amazing world we have together, even though we have so many conflicts. Just dance, forget yourself, move on.

I want the soldier, standing so still that he looks fake, to know that I recognize him as human. He’s not just a piece of furniture standing in this room. Just like the one on the other side of the door, he’s breathing, thinking, and digesting. Probably thinking about what’s for lunch and not about what major international implications his job carries with it.

“Thank you,” I say to him on my way out.

Last look at the border.

Toward the North Korean Side, the area that their Rapid Strike Force occupies. Ahmed said that they haven’t seen much movement over there, and that the army on the South side jokes that they are the “Slow Strike Force.”

The rest of our time at the DMZ is mostly uneventful. We cram through a tunnel clearly made for people half our size at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, which turns out to be more of a hike than we had thought. It’s ridiculously cramped down there, and jammed with Chinese tourists of whom I am extremely envious for their much more suitable height.

Landmines. Landmines everywhere. Those trees conceal one of the most densely-mined areas in the world.

The Bridge of No Return

The unification building.

When we reach the Unification building at Dorasan, the guards suddenly begin yelling at us to get inside. Angry-sounding Korean crackles over the radio.

Walking quickly away, thinking we might be about to be part of an international incident.

“Go inside, go inside now!” says one of the young men in uniform, running toward us. I break right and immediately go for the nearest door, thinking that there might be some military reason for the urgency in his voice. I think there must be an international incident underway, maybe some of that shelling that they are always threatening on Seoul or a skirmish at the JSA. Little do we know that about a kilometer away, a North Korean soldier has just shot two colleagues and defected across the border.

The yelling isn’t about the defection, just below us on the highway. It turns out that he just wanted to make certain that we watched their informational video inside, and perhaps could use some work on his tone in English.

No photos past here.

We eat lunch, wander around the Dorasan train station, and then clamor onto the bus to head back to Seoul. After the JSA, the rest of the DMZ seems easy and somewhat boring. It’s definitely worth the extra money; I’d have been disappointed if I’d only gone into the tunnel.

End of the line.

205 km to Pyongyang.


The transition back to life in the city is quiet, and again we miraculously hit no traffic. The plan is to throw ourselves into the most opposite experience possible to the quiet, order, and loneliness of the DMZ…a massive fireworks display in downtown Seoul.