i spend two weeks driving around iceland with my cousins, and we spend the two weeks in intensely close quarters, in a camper van, in which we eat and sleep and travel. we start in reykjavik and end in reykjavik — or, i suppose, if we’re being technical, we start at keflavik airport and end at keflavik airport, making our way around the entire country, stopping for hikes and waterfalls and breathtakingly beautiful landscapes.
iceland is a country that takes your breath away by being stupid beautiful and stupid expensive. it's a country of colors and textures, of water in all kinds of hues, of food that makes you cry every time you purchase it because, yes, it's good — the fish is amazing, the hot dogs addictive — but it's all so, so expensive.
gas stations end up being the bane of my existence, and i think how it's always the random things, the things you don't think about that catch you off-guard when traveling. in japan, it was small talk, the value of it; in korea, it was the weirdness of sharing a language and a culture but being so outside both; and, in iceland, it's gas stations. for some reason, i never have a smooth transaction at any gas station.
my cousins are on my father's side of my family, and, for the longest time, for so many years, my greatest "what if?" was "what if my father had gotten a job on the east coast and i'd grown up where i was born in close proximity to my cousins? how different would i be now?"
it's a “what if” that took me years, over a decade, to shake, and it's a “what if” i still sometimes think about, especially during family gatherings, when all the extended family (or as much of it) gets together during a holiday, exchanging our usual "hi"s and "how are you doing"s, collecting again in that strange space of familiarity and strangeness. i've always hated that distance, of "it's been so long"s, because i've always hated that sense of knowing but not knowing them, of my cousins existing in this space of myth where their accomplishments loomed larger to me than their actual selves.
my cousins are brilliant, and, because my father is the fifth child of six, i'm one of the youngest ones, a child who watched from a distance with something akin to hero worship as news of my cousins on the east coast filtered down to me through my parents. i grew up hoping i'd be like them, that my future would be ivy leagued and bright, that i would discover an excellence and genius within me that would vault me onto their level. i always felt a disappointment when i remained firmly on the ground and never learned to fly.
but, anyway, i don't believe in hero worship anymore, and i try not to linger on "what if"s or on regrets or hypotheticals. of course, it's all easier said than done most times, but there is still this, this refusal to be tied down to this kind of negative bullshit anymore.
and, anyway, so, my cousins are on my father's side of my family, and they're my youngest aunt's kids, and they're younger than i am, which means i remember them from when they were babies. the eldest is almost in her mid-twenties now, which is bloody weird, and the youngest is fifteen, which is even weirder. i remember her when she was a baby, when my aunt would make my middle-school-aged brother carry her on his back when we were hiking in canada, and i remember her as a child, laughing and laughing and laughing like all she could do was laugh, like she'd cease to exist if she stopped laughing.
she still laughs non-stop, from the second she wakes up to the second she falls asleep, and i love this about her, this mirth that bubbles from her core, that draws you into her world of joy and makes you see the world as a brighter place. i think we could all use someone like that in our lives.
at night, we sleep like sardines in the van, and we fall into a routine of prepping for sleep at night and packing up in the morning. it's not as bad as i'm afraid it will be, this sleeping in a camper van for two weeks, though i feel terrible for the eldest because the other three of us snore.
(snoring is one of those things i feel terrible about, even though it's nothing i can control.)
the eldest is a study of patience, and she sees the positive to everything and everyone. i, on the other hand, often feel uncharitable for being unable to maintain such a view to life, and, sometimes, i wish i were a gentler, more forgiving soul. i'm irritable, though, and impatient and transparent about both, and i can be argumentative and moody and occasionally combative, despite being pretty non-confrontational by nature.
i worry about these parts of my personality before leaving for iceland because i know my tendency to max out quickly on close human contact. i'm not someone who does well attached to a human (or a set of humans) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and i know i wear my emotions on my face, that my annoyance comes through easily, that i'm not the greatest at hiding my displeasure when it arrives.
it feels like a miracle that the two weeks pass without incident, with only one occasion when my temper comes roiling to the surface. it has nothing to do with my cousins, though, and everything to do with the sheer physical exhaustion that comes from a lot of hiking, constant movement, and anxiety-dream-riddled sleep. i don't sleep well in strange places as it is, and add my anxiety to it, and sleep — or restful sleep — is still that unicorn i chase.
it helps, though, that the eldest is so patient, the middle silent and stoic, the youngest so mirthful. it’s impossible to fester in foul moods or testiness around that combination, just like it’s impossible to lose time to anything ugly in a country that takes your breath away constantly. iceland is unreal, painted in colors that stun even the imagination, and our two weeks feel like a dream, like we’re suspended from reality, and it’s a place from which i’m loathe to return.
our second-to-last evening, we check into a hostel to sleep in proper beds in proper heating because two of us are getting sick and we all need showers. i reheat cold spaghetti on the stove and cook the rest of our rice, and we sit around the table, eating, drinking the last of our rosé, and talking. i think, this is kind of what i envisioned from this trip, being able to sit and chat — which isn’t to say that the rest of the trip is a disappointment because it’s not. you don’t have to sit around a table to get to know people; you learn a lot just from being around them.
it’s a particularly nice evening, nicer because my cousins are older and i feel comfortable talking to them, being open with them. they’re all smart kids, smart and curious and ambitious and wounded and human, and i want to keep them with me all the time, am saddened by the fact that we’ll be in four different cities again, that an opportunity like this will be difficult to come by again.
we say, let's do this again. let's road trip around korea; let's go to spain — and i want these to be words we don't just say but things that can actually happen at some point in the near future, things that can be possibilities. let's go here, let's go there — i want this to be the framework of my life because i want to travel and see the world and eat everything, and i want to live on the road, to return to my home city for a few days, a few weeks at a time, before venturing on to the next city, the next country, again.
and maybe that's the hard part about traveling, that it cracks open that part of me that i keep locked so tightly because i don't have the financial means to travel as i'd like. when i'm back at the office, back at work, i spend too long looking up flights to barcelona, wondering if it's wiser to save when i can or just to travel when i can, and i try to quell that familiar ache blooming again in my gut — i want to go; i want to go; i want to go.
i have never wanted to be just here, wherever here is, and driving around iceland in a camper van for two weeks reminds me of that, brings all that rushing back and slithering again under my skin. i want to go; i want to go; i want to go.