Dear Sigmundur, I Don’t Want Your Puffins

Bloggers and photographers everywhere agree that Iceland is an ideal destination. It’s geographically closer than the rest of Europe yet could not be farther in other aspects. Harsh landscapes shaped by lava and glaciers pair with Aurora Borealis or the midnight sun to frame pictures that will make Instagram followers salivate. Trolls roam the land, at least according to the legend, and will steal your shoes if you’re not careful. Rotten shark, charbroiled puffin and ram’s testicles line the menus. Icebergs roam in and out of harbors, causing a nuisance for local fishermen but making wannabe Nat Geo photographers ecstatic. But many great things, such as your current favorite song or Mount Everest, are ruined by the masses. Iceland’s character is defined by its uniqueness — nowhere else in the world can you sit in a geothermal spring on a fjord and watch the northern lights dance while reading how Erik the Red once sat in the same pool millennia prior. At the same time, the small island nation is characterized by its harsh rawness — fatal weather and natural disasters are constantly on the brink. All of these factors combine to attract only two types of travelers: pretentious pricks who won’t shut up about how they went “before it was cool” and realist earth-lovers looking to escape. I like to consider myself to be in the latter category, but upon serious reflection and soul-searching it has become strikingly obvious that I belong to the Pretentious Pricks Collective (Which would actually be a pretty cool band name now that I think about it). For the sake of this article, I have decided to create an entire new calendar to rival the Gregorian and Julian bullshit. Mine begins January 1, 2016, the beginning of the Hipster Reformation. Any date prior to this will be referenced as BC — Before Coolness, or AC — After Coolness.

My story begins on the South coast, at the glacial lagoon known as Jökulsárlón. You may have seen it if you’re friends with any of my fellow Collective members on Facebook. If you haven’t it looks just like you’d expect it to look: A glacier next to a lagoon.

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Jökulsárlón during the summer

I first visited the lagoon during the pre-reformation year of 2014 BC, a time when life was simple and one could walk up to the frigid water without tripping over a kebab stand. I didn’t return until 2016 AC, and edgy college kids were everywhere, complaining about the lack of quinoa in the North Atlantic and bragging how dangerous of a travel method they had taken to the remote area. Duck boats drove in and out of the water, carrying fat Americans and their whiny offspring dangerously close to the glacier that was only one drone-crash away from a catastrophic calving. There were more selfie sticks than people, and the smell of cigarettes overwhelmed the cool ocean breeze.

I had come to Iceland to escape, yet I found myself surrounded by the shit stains I was trying to avoid. It was time for seclusion — the sort of seclusion only possible in the Westfjords.

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The town of Ísafjörður, population 2559

When I think of the word seclusion, my mind instantly wanders to the town of Ísafjörður. It is considered by Icelanders to be the capital of the Westfjords, and with around 2600 inhabitants it is the most populated “city” in the region.

The curious thing about the Pretentious Pricks Collective is that although they will go to exorbitant lengths to one-up each other, once they achieve this goal their journey ends. By traveling to the glacial lagoon and boarding a cramped boat with other Pricks they have successfully outdone most of their friends’ travel experiences. They may claim that their travel has a higher purpose — perhaps breaking down stereotypes or getting the local experience — but their true goal in traveling is to prove their superiority to those who find satisfaction vacationing at the side of a pool. This sense of superiority is what made Iceland so popular in the first place — it’s mysterious and off-the-beaten-path. But with popularity the mystique that intrigued so many intrepid explorers slowly shrivels, leaving the Pricks desiring even edgier destinations.

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Towns like Ísafjörður have remained untainted for centuries, protected by their inaccessibility. The town’s airport is home to one of the world’s most dangerous landing approaches due to the mountains of the fjord, and the security is so low that you can drive your rental car directly onto the runway if you so please. But as the capital city, hot springs, and glacial lagoons slip into the mainstream, the tourists have already begun flocking to Ísafjörður in search of the “last frontier”.

Now, a stroll through the town reveals that English advertisements have replaced the Icelandic ones, guesthouses offering continental breakfasts and linen services have replaced the fisheries, and souvenir shops selling “I Heart Iceland” t-shirts have replaced the old warehouses. A man named Sigmundur stands outside the town bakery with a sign offering puffin tours — for only 12,000 kronor you can board an old fishing boat with a bunch of other tourists and putz around the fjords for six hours to catch a sick Instagram of the rare, elusive bird.

I don’t want your puffins, Sigmundur. I don’t want to board a crowded boat full of tourists. I don’t want bacon and eggs for breakfast. I don’t want a cool Instagram photo to impress people I don’t care about. I don’t want some idiot’s drone flying into the glacier. I don’t want the local experience. I most certainly don’t want to be part of the Pretentious Pricks Collective.

I want to experience the seclusion as an outsider. I want to sit in a lawn chair on the beach of Jökulsárlón, watching the ice bergs sway, worrying not about selfie sticks or duck boats. I want to sit on the docks of Ísafjörður, dangling my feet above the cold abyss, worrying not about the puffin tours or souvenir shops. I want to sit in seat 14F, falling asleep to Of Monsters and Men, worrying not about the Prick in seat 14E.

I want seclusion.

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Written by

Journalist, entrepreneur and student - Boston College, University of Otago. Buddhist. Expert adventurer and consultant for conducting business in Asia.

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