Iceland’s Westfjords: The 1300Km Week

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Our route

Last week, we had a bit of time off from volunteering and ended up renting a car to drive to the Westfjords in Iceland. We didn’t have much time to plan, since we arrived on the 31st of May in Iceland and almost immediately had one of our monthly weeks off. We work quite a lot at our volunteering gig for the summer, but there is a ton to learn.

Just yesterday we learned to lead rock wall climbing and abseiling for the kids. I learned how to tie a few hitches and knots, and less than 20 minutes later I climbed out of a 10-metre tower relying on my own handiwork to hold me up. Here I am, writing…so it worked!

But I digress.

The Westfjords are some of the most empty parts of the vast emptiness that is Iceland. In fact, when I just looked at the Wikipedia page to get some background information, I saw that the population has declined in the region in recent years. It was once a frontier-like fishing industrial region, but much of that is gone now.

It was indescribably beautiful. Empty. Quiet. Gorgeous. Perpetually twilight. Arctic. It is clear why the Icelandic Sagas often used these fjords as their backdrop. It is a breathtaking blend of dizzying heights of the mountains and the flat, gunmetal gray of the mercurial seas below.

On our first day, we hitched a ride with one of the folks who lives at our camp to Reykjavik, and picked up our car from Lagoon Cars (recommend!), and headed out of the city. We stopped periodically to catch the waterfalls and the clean air, but made great time anyway. Our goal was Súðavík, a small town of 150ish people on one of the fjords. The water outside was insanely clear and hurt my eyes with the blue it held.


We pulled in around 19:00. The sun just never sets at the moment in Iceland, leading to some sort of time vertigo in me at least. I never have a clue what time it is. The next day we ended up stumbling upon a perfect view of the midnight sun, but that’s to come tomorrow.

Iceland is everything that I could have hoped for in the depths of my struggles in Shanghai this year, he sheer manifestation of the deepest wishes I swore to at least attempt to make true with my headphones in, blasting music at my desk in the office, with five minutes until my next class. The Westfjords in particular are wild and built like a perfect, supportive playground for the rare Nomadic Coleens of the world. Cold water, hot water pools to soak in, waterfalls to play near, hiking and nature and sheep and delicious foods.

Things that should be so natural and easy, like fresh water and air, were so far removed in our year in China. It is a personal miracle every time I can drink directly from a stream here, with the cold water filling my hands, crouched by the banks of the fast water in a gesture that would be familiar to my most ancient ancestors…which is always in my minds as some whiff of forgotten instinct when I’m hiking. Never enacted, never dared. Until now.


Miraculous, after a year buying water in Shanghai

It is such a treat to be here, and even if the work is occasionally long or chaotic (No more sweet peppers to chop tonight, please! My arms are sore after the first ten!), it is so worth it to be here with my husband and live in this beautiful place. Shanghai seems a lifetime ago, even if I only stepped onto the plane 38 days ago. This week I should become certified in leading archery and taking kiddos on the lake in boats, and soon in First Aid. Boom, epic English Teachers who are super fun as well. Yes. I hope to be so.

It’s sunny out and 22:40, so I’m rambling a little. Time for the photos of the Westfjords that you came to see. Just click to make them bigger and inspect the beauty for yourselves.

Tomorrow: The Midnight Sun (!)

China Survey: Results

Thank you very much to everyone who responded to the survey I put up about China in 2016. It was very interesting to see how people said they view China.

The biggest takeaways:

  1. The majority of respondents have never set foot in China.
  2. More respondents have a negative view of China than a positive one.
  3. Stereotypes about China are persistent and often outdated.

Now let’s get into the survey’s meat itself. If you want to take the survey yourself, please click here. 

Q1 Result: 57% people residing in the USA.

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The other countries in the 32% at the bottom were mostly Canadians, with several Australians and many others.

Q2 Result: 56% of respondents consider their nationality US.

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Only a couple of people identified themselves as Chinese.

Q3 Result: Hardly anyone reads hard-copy magazines anymore.

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Bizzarely, most of the responses for ‘Other’ were for Reddit. Guys…that’s an internet news site. Except this one:

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Russ, is that you? 🙂

Q4 Result: Slightly more than 40% of respondents have a mostly negative or wholly negative view of China.

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One person did say it was too complicated to categorize in this fashion.

Q5 Result: ‘Authoritarian,’ ‘Corrupt,’ and ‘Communist’ are the top adjectives for the government of China.

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This question could have been formulated better, but I wanted to see what people used to describe the government of China broadly speaking. Additional write-in responses included ‘capitalist,’ ‘unknown,’ ‘fascist in some aspects,’ and ‘i haven’t thought of it before.’

Maybe I should have included a definition of these words, or asked people to define them in their own words.

Q6 Result: Nearly 80% of respondents have never visited China.

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This is the most revealing question in the whole survey. The vast majority of the respondents have never seen China with their own eyes, so their views must only be formed through the information they get from the news and their interactions with people they know who are Chinese.

A little over a year ago, I would have been in this category, too. My own views on China have changed a lot since I moved there last year. The post is coming, I promise! I’m still digesting what I think and forming it.

Q7 Result: 65% of respondents are not nervous about China’s place in the world. Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 3.46.30 PM

Interesting! I wouldn’t have expected this, based on the conversations I’ve been having since I got back. The comments on this question are revealing:

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I’ve heard a lot of comparisons to North Korea since I’ve been back in the States.

Q8 Result: I’ll get out of the way and let people speak for themselves. The question was ‘Describe your mental picture of China, in two sentences or less.’


Highlights include this gem:

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The most commonly mentioned phrase in these responses was ‘air pollution’ or some variation thereof, following by mentions of weak legal institutions and income inequality.

Q9 Result: Most people know at least one person from China.

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Q10 Result: Everyone knows about Mao Zedong, few people know the name of the First Emperor.

Sorted from most responses to least.

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It seems as though people hear about China a lot, even though most in this survey have never been there.

This survey falls in line with the general ideas about China in media, and the narratives that drive them. Some of the ideas people have about China are really outdated, but my guess is that this is due to the poignancy of the images from the Cultural Revolution and the heavy focus both within and outside China on the current air pollution issues.

I was surprised that more people did not indicate they are nervous about China’s role in the world, given that they are mostly from the USA and most people I’ve spoken to since being back here appear to be hyper-nervous about it. Equally surprising is that the Rape of Nanking ranks above the Cultural Revolution in renown.

It is unsurprising that those surveyed have a mostly negative view of China.

How do you feel about China in 2016? Do you have opinions about travel to countries like China or North Korea?

Travel Talk

Here’s the talk I did at a local high school (my old school!) today. It’s meant to be encouraging to young people looking to get into this nomadic travel lifestyle. It went over quite well!

If anyone, high schooler or no, has questions for me about travel and this life I’ve chosen, contact me directly below. I write back quickly.


The Last Bits of Shanghai

It’s nearly time to head out of Shanghai, and on to the next adventure.

Although in reality, Shanghai hasn’t felt much like adventure a lot of the time. It’s important to make money for reasons like student debt and computers that get sweated to death by the house itself in this city, but it sure has felt like I spent most of the last year working and very little of it travelling.

My husband is currently reading Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, which I believe I’d heard of a few times before but never read myself (yet). He talks about ‘anti-sabbaticals,’ where you work crappy shifts for long hours to save money for the next trip.

In many ways, that’s been Shanghai.

I’m sitting here in our now-too-sterile-feeling apartment, which seems a little like being in a hotel that also happened to be your home for a year (somehow not a contradiction in my mind at the moment). It’s now exactly one year since we woke up at 5AM in Colorado and began the journey to China.

A lot has changed in that time, and a lot hasn’t.

Things that haven’t changed 

  1. My eyes are still blue, and still slightly scary to small children over in this hemisphere.
  2. My husband and I are still in love and even closer than before!
  3. My hair colour, despite really, really wanting to dye a blue streak into it to make up for my classroom-friendly filtering of my usual language.
  4. My school, which may seem like a contradiction given the high staff turnover since I arrived. I have a theory that secretly the school is conscious and runs itself. Similar problems as always, yet somehow it keeps going.
  5. Shanghai’s air quality, unfortunately.
  6. The stubborn scar left by shingles, which will never go away, over my left eye. Shanghai’s early mark, I suppose.

I’m not sure what words best qualify the year spent here. My own journals put forth a repetitive mantra, ‘So tired. So tired. So tired.’ And then this, from 1 December:

“Here’s hoping Shanghai gets better before we leave. There is a lot of good here, but so much annoyance. Not even badness, just annoyance. I actually think it has to do with Shanghai attracting migrants from all over China and all over the world. It’s as if it’s no one’s city.

The history paved over with concrete and LEDs, and desperately attempted to be forgotten except in hackneyed ‘mobster’ photo booths.

It felt very old Shanghai when I met some folks at Bistro Burger on Sunday. Fog. Quiet. Walking old lanes at night with colonial houses on them. A Xi Jinping poster at a dubious street sushi place, kittens clumsily playing below it.

Despite that glimpse, it’s clear that Shanghai is long gone. And this Shanghai may be underwater by 2080. It’s not a home, but it will do for now.”

Unfortunately, that feeling did not change. In fact, it may have merely intensified.

Things that Have Changed 

  1. My weight. I’ve lost about 35 pounds. Wheeeeeeeeeeee! (Don’t I look well in this picture?).


    Tonsillitis makes my natural pallor shine

  2. I have ticked off or will tick off everything except yoga 4x per week on my list of things to do in China that I wrote over the Pacific on the plane over. Highlights include saving money, writing Beer in Situ in Shanghai, and learning 300 characters.
  3. My immune system. It’s utterly shot. I kid you not, I have been sick every single week since October 1st. My runny nose and cough have simply never cleared. I was fine during the summer, and as soon as it got cold and damp it was all over. 


    Couldn’t quite capture the yellowy colour of the clouds

  4. I took the HSK 2 test last Saturday. If I pass, that means I now have certifiably less-than-completely-shitty Mandarin Chinese skills.
  5. I have more teaching experience now, and way more tricks up my sleeve for all levels and ages.
  6. I have had the pleasure of managing coworkers and a fair bit of on-the-job training for how to run an English School.
  7. Donald Trump is a serious candidate for the November Election. I ignored him all summer, but it is beyond ignoring now.
  8. My perception of China. In many ways it is portrayed negatively or highly positively in Western media, and I will need a lot more writing to parse out what exactly has changed about my idea of China. But I know it has changed.
  9. I am now a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu white belt!

In many ways, I’m not too sure what I was hoping would come from Shanghai. I wanted a way to work and save money while living in the same country as my husband. It fulfilled all those requirements, but somehow is so much less than fulfilling in itself.

It’s not the intensity of China or of Shanghai that has gotten to me. In reality, there isn’t much intensity to speak of. It’s the lower, longer, grinding stuff that has made it difficult to live here and that makes me excited to leave.

We fly out on Sunday to see a few more bits of China, and then we fly from Shanghai on May 6th in opposite directions (London and Denver) to meet again on the other side of the world in Iceland for the summer.

Thanks for what you gave us, Shanghai. Still not a home like other places, but something less than a strange and foreign land, too.


Our apartment is way over to the left in the low brown building

Beer in Situ: Song Tasting Room

The Pertinents

  • Song Tasting Room
  • 259 Jiashan Road (near Jongjia Rd), in the alleyway under the Jiashan Market arch
  • Founded in 2016


Tiny but great! It was like a dream. The music was essentially my playlist for the last seven years, and making me feel like maybe there was an interesting Universe moment. The place is just down an alleyway and feels like an actually cool place in Shanghai.

I asked for a Stout and got a cider. Meh! It was good. We tried three of the four beers and they were all very high quality. In particular, the water seemed well-treated and tasted unlike the tangy Shanghai water. The pale ale was the best.

No food as far as we could tell, but there is a lot around. This is technically a soft opening, and they are brewing new beers to come out soon. Can’t wait to see what comes next for them, and we will definitely be back.