The Joy(s) of Air Travel

Over the past year I have become rather accomplished in airport protocol. (That’s what happens when you enter into a relationship with someone who lives in a different country.) There have been only a small handful of instances in which my usually slick schedule has been dented, and for each one of them I can confidently claim outside interference the reason for the mishap.

One notable heart raiser was caused by an hour delay on my drive to Stansted (adding 50% extra travel time), and the subsequent scenic route the TomTom took me, which felt like a whistle-stop tour of every village and hamlet known to man and beast in the vicinity of Cambridgeshire and north east Essex. Arriving at the carpark considerably behind schedule, I boarded the shuttle bus (for a further ten- to fifteen-minute journey to the departure terminal) exactly one hour prior to take off time, which, quite frankly, was not a lot to work with. Luckily the security queues were manageable and, ever efficient, I raced through them in record time to find that my flight’s gate was the furthest one possible. I was also getting hungry ( / hangry) which didn’t much help. With carry-on suitcase in toe, I legged it all the way to Gate Far Far Away, hovering, momentarily, at each and every food outlet en route, gazing longingly at the falafel and houmous wraps before rationalising that it was much more sensible to actually make the plane rather than satisfy my hunger pangs, and, either way, I could always get some dry roasted peanuts mid-flight. Eventually I reached the long lost gate, which was mid-boarding but not yet departed. Phew. Obviously I had not paid the £6 upgrade to let me sit on the plane for five minutes longer to watch the hoi polloi file in (I am not made of money, and I am not totally stupid), so I had a few moments to work with and my mind was firmly on falafel. The adjacent W H Smith satisfied my time-poor and houmous-hungry needs. My Middle Eastern dinner and I made it safely onto the plane, and tutted, with everyone else, at the latecomers who held us all up.

The second, far more costly, airport-related disaster involved Ryanair. (Need I say more?) This time I was at my gate with near hours to spare, staring at a constantly pushed-back departure time for my flight, making the hours I had to wait get longer by the minute. Tannoy announcements extended the company’s “sincerest apologies” about the delays, and assured the now growingly disgruntled gathering that as soon as the inbound flight had landed and disembarked we would be right on our way. I found out via my boyfriend over in the Netherlands that the flight had been cancelled before Ryanair deemed it necessary to inform its passengers of the decision. But however much this lack of communication vexed me (a lot), it did give me a head start against my fellow passengers to get back to the check-in desk to re-book onto another flight. This behind-the-scenes journey through secret doors and passageways of parts of the airport one never ordinarily sees was partaken in a speed walk / slow jog tempo, keeping as much of an eye on the (lack of) directions back to the desk as on my fellow passengers, constantly calculating how best I should overtake them. If I say so myself; I got there rather swiftly. I arrived to be third in line at the Ryanair desk, which was yet to be opened. Obviously.

Juggling transatlantic calls to the other half, Skyscanner search engines for alternative flights and listening in to the game plans of those around me, this ten minutes of waiting made me even more stressed than the cancellation of the flight itself. My phone was also on 5% battery and my hanger levels were nearing overflow. Earwigging on the discourse between the passenger in front and the uninterested Ryanair advisor (when he finally got there), I gleaned that there were no available seats on Ryanair flights in the next two days, and the options that stood were a full refund (on your highly discounted Ryanair fare) or, well, that was your only option. (The computer said “no” to transferring you to a different airline.) Helpful. As I was called to the desk I did my best to feign helpless lone female (not sure if there was any feigning required to be honest) to try to get on one of their fully-booked flights, or be transferred to another airline. I achieved neither. Asking if Ryanair would compensate me for a night in a hotel (it was now gone 9 pm and I was in London sans car) and an available flight the following day with another airline, I was responded to with a smirk, a throat-clear, and the ever-supportive, “you can try”. I replied with a “thank you for being so unhelpful” and dropped the mic.

A sassy exit I may have had, but what was I to do now? My Skycanner search now changed to that of Booking.com, and my iPhone battery reduced to 4%. From a quick thumb scroll I realised I had a few options: cheap and shitty; slightly more upmarket with a price tag reflective; totally beyond my means. Although I was more than tempted to go superposh, with Ryanair to pick up the bill, I spoke a little sense to myself and settled for upmarket. (I could’t be doing with any more budget bust ups tonight.) Finding the hotel shuttle bus stop was a nightmare in itself, but once I had walked around the pitch-black airport surrounds for circa forty-five minutes I finally happened upon it, with the desired coach just pulling in. But seemingly the whole of Stansted was against me that night. As I lumbered up to the driver not only did she CHARGE ME! (£3.) What? She WOULD NOT ACCEPT CARD AND I HAD JUST £2.50 TO MY NAME. She wasn’t having any of it. She directed me to the ‘nearby’ (pfft) cash machine, but confirmed that she would not wait for me while I withdrew cash. I soon realised that no amount of puppy eyes were going to work on Miss Trunchball reincarnated, and began my lumber back down to the darkness, praying that another, more amenable, coach would be coming soon. At which point my saviour appeared. A middle-aged Brummy man proclaimed behind me, “I can lend yaouw fifty pee, love”. I have never been so grateful in all my life.

Once checked in, settled, fed (omelette) and watered (red wine) it was time to hunker down before my EasyJet flight in the morning. However. Travelling frequently and ‘light’ means that one does not take makeup remover, toothbrush and toothpaste, or deodorant in one’s carry on. One has everything that one needs at one’s end destination. But with an overnight interruption to proceedings one runs across some basic hygiene problems. I will leave you to imagine the bleary- and blackened-eyed, red-wine-tinged and slightly smelly mess that reacquainted herself with the airport the following morning. All that I will say is that she did eventually reach her desired destination (unrecompensed for any of the losses – monetary or otherwise), albeit nine hours behind schedule.

But for my most recent aviation adversity the compounding factor can only truthfully be put down to forgetfulness (with a small consolation being that I was not alone and so only half (at most) to blame). As I and Mr Unpronounceable arrived at Keflavik Airport in Reykjavik last month to return our hire car and catch our flight home we conversed, rather self righteously, about how excellent our time management and organisational skills were, as we skipped into the airport with plenty of time to spare. Without access to any kind of weighing device during the packing process we partook in (just as prior to our outbound flight) a last minute weigh-in and re-jiggle of our suitcases’ contents at the airport, in order to meet the specified restrictions. This we carried out leisurely and with calmness, not a care in the world with so much time to play with. Waving them off on their conveyor belt ride to the plane, we continued on our journey through the airport system, with nothing left to carry apart from one tiny cross-body handbag (on me) and one (not so tiny but still reasonably small) backpack (on him). The joys of going hands free! We could hold hands and walk at the same time, and even had another hand spare – each – to clutch our boarding passes! What a delightful experience this checked-in luggage afforded.

Security was the next point of call, which we sauntered up to in our now accustomed ease. Then I heard a very Dutch sounding “Fuck” from just over my right shoulder. It was a slightly high-pitched and rapid exhalation of the profanity; a version of the remark appropriate for when stubbing one’s toe or hitting one’s head on a sharp-cornered cupboard door. At first I thought he’d forgotten his passport, and then I remembered he’s really not that stupid. Then I thought he’d forgotten to drink the water in his reusable bottle (greater than the limit for fluids on the flight). And then I realised that was far too extreme a reaction for the requirement to chug half a litre of water. So then I stopped fantasising in my mind and asked him, “Whaddup?” “My suit!” he proclaimed, his eyes growing wider by the second. Oh shit. His suit. Yes. That thing we were supposed to remember on the back seat of the hire car…

I have never before had to un-scan myself backwards through an airport barrier, but it turns out they have a whole system for that and it is probably more common than you might think. We pegged it out of the terminal building and across the vast grey carpark – in the rain (pathetic fallacy) – back to the Thrifty office, a confusing state of embarrassment and urgency making us both a curious shade of red. The guy with whom we had returned the car was still on duty, so we made a beeline for him and explained, between pants (short breaths not trousers), our situation. (He, in fact, could be another outside factor to blame for the whole situation, as he had ‘checked’ the car on its return, but I won’t get into the blame game. (It was all Gijs’ fault.)) As he took us to the car to claim our lost property Gijs remarked, flippantly, that – can you believe – we were almost on the plane before we realised what we had left! The hire guy took this very seriously and understood that we HAD been on the plane and were let off to retrieve our item. So he insisted on driving us back to the airport entrance, abiding to absolutely no road markings and definitely breaking the carpark’s speed limit if it had one, repeating the words: “I won’t let you miss your flight”. We were too embarrassed to admit that we still had two hours to kill before it was due to depart. So we rushed into the terminal building – to continue the pretence of absolute emergency, and got safely inside and out of eyesight before LOLling to high heaven. Our skin tone slowly subsided to a more natural, less tomato-based, shade, and our breathing became more controlled and less audible. I grabbed my Dutchman’s one free hand and squeezed it, encouragingly (with perhaps the slightest touch of blame), as we skipped off to security for the second, and final, time.

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Healing Waters

Famed as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’, a trip to Iceland is to experience nature in its rawest, purest form. Its landscape, once – not so long ago – described as barren, desolate and uninhabitable is now revered for its beauty, diversity and unparalleled atmosphere. (No wonder it has become one of the favoured filming locations for the little-known television series Game of Thrones, which, incidentally (or not), is an adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Fire and Ice.) Fire and ice by definition are the opposite extremes of nature’s miraculous powers; both are intrinsic to our survival yet both have the capability of unmitigated destruction. Perhaps this is why the island is such a magnet for travellers from all degrees of the intrepid scale: beauty and danger on a knife-edge are always going to get hearts racing. But combine the country’s two intrinsic elements – the heat and power of fire with the virtues of the clear and fresh Icelandic water – and you have the recipe for the most abundant, truly organic and (in my opinion) thoroughly enjoyable aspect of all Iceland has to offer: the exquisite geothermal pools and springs.

With the grand Blue Lagoon arguably the biggest Instagram hotspot (pun intended) in the ‘Most Instagrammable Place on Earth’ (according to Cosmopolitan) (I’m not going to disagree), one would be forgiven for thinking that said lagoon was the pinnacle of all hot pools that Iceland has to offer. No doubt it is the best attended, with hordes of tourists visiting the destination whether they are exploring the island for four indulgent weeks or four hurried stopover hours. The Blue Lagoon certainly has the wow factor and facilities (and price tag) to attract attention (and a plethora of plastic-wrapped selfie sticks). But there is so much more to Iceland’s breadth of geothermal bathing than simply its flagship store. From dipping into a blissfully deserted mountain spring to delving into a blissfully decadent seawater bath (with mountain views inclusive throughout), during our two-week foray in and around the magical island we indulged in more geothermal experiences than we would care to admit, and relished each and every moment like it might be our last.

Commencing our anti-clockwise circular trip from the country’s south western capital, we – somewhat predictably – began our geothermal exploration at the aforementioned choice check-in; the turquoise hors d’oeuvre set to whet our silica-craving appetites ‘fore our multi-course extravaganza of, what felt like, all the warm waters that Iceland possibly had to offer. We also figured – somewhat ingeniously – to cross off all of the tourist-heavy spots (namely the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle) at the start of our trip, so that by the time we were truly at one with nature (and Icelandic waterfall aficionados) we did not have to withstand the infuriating crowds of, let’s face it, infuriating (and mainly American) accents and photograph requests. I am intolerant and impatient at the best of times so this was definitely a wise tactic. As anticipated, perhaps even more so, the Blue Lagoon was seething with visitors – and selfie sticks – and miraculously the problematic lagoon-like nature of the attraction did not seem to deter many a guest from bringing their latest iPhone with them right into the water. The fact that they had to purchase a waterproof phone jacket (for, I’m sure, vast amounts of króna), and keep their right arm at a permanently acute angle so as not to let the tech slip into the pool seemingly did not put them off; if anything added to their sense of hardship as a nomadic social media influencer.

The complimentary silica mud mask and alcoholic drink (prosecco for me, darling) were welcome additions; the near death chocking experience at the in-pool water fountain was not. (Should’ve gone for a second prosecco.) But even worse was the moment when I discovered that the shores were lined with seaweed, feeling the silky smooth, nourishing strands gracefully floating between my toes. Seaweed! How amazing! I lifted my foot above the water to closer inspect the algae, and realised that what had been caressing my toes was in fact strands of hair from all of the many guests who had frequented the lagoon up until that point. It was not green or marine-derived; it was long and black and from the heads of annoying Americans!!! My toes curled (as soon as I untangled them from the clumps of hair) and I suddenly needed to get out of the pool, like, NOW. The boyfriend was very understanding and supportive and escorted me immediately to safety, but later admitted that he had in fact predicted that the seaweed I had discovered was something more sinister, but hadn’t wanted to dampen my mood.

Around 75 km east of Reykjavik was the so-called Secret Lagoon (supposedly the oldest swimming pool in Iceland), but, judging by the number of Asian’s with whom we shared the lake, awareness of the lagoon had stretched a little further than the confines of Fluðir’s native population. Much less grand and polished than it’s Blue counterpart, the Secret Lagoon felt more authentic and au naturel, with the invasion of foot hygiene this time provided by a jagged, rocky flooring, and the near death experience experienced this time by my companion, during his scantily-clad dash in bitterly cold Icelandic winds to save my left barbie-pink flip flop who was rather taken with the Nordic gale. (Both survived virtually unscathed.)

Circa 800 km later on the renowned Route 1, on the opposite side of the country, lay Mývatn Nature Baths, a perfect balance between luxury and unpretentiousness; by all accounts the ideal geothermic encounter. Due to its proximity to the ‘sulphuric martian landscape’ Námaskarð (i.e. a great moon-like expanse of rotten-egg-scented hell), however, I was unable to fully relax in its surrounds because of the lingering, inharmonious, almighty hum. (My concerned partner kept asking if I was ok, in reaction to my persistent pained expression, but I was fine – really – just trying to achieve respiration through a facial orifice which would not also ingest the rotten ruddy aroma.)

On the opposite extreme entirely to these relatively orchestrated geothermal experiences was the largely untouched and totally at-one-with-natured Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. Being in the vicinity of the Golden Circle we were aware (as ever) of the potential for what was intended to be a morning of serene seclusion to be overrun by another heard of selfie-stick-sporting sightseers. So we set our alarm for 5 am sharp and made sure we got there before anyone else. An hour-or-so hike took us to the crystal clear waters; this hour-or-so spent playing overtaker and overtakee of a group of three fellow early birds with whom we were quite shamelessly racing to beat to the stream. Thanks to a number of outer clothing readjustments (on my part) and a number of unmissable photo opportunities (on their part) it was touch and go for most of the hike. But down to sheer determination (on our part) we beat them to it, disrobing quicker than we thought possible (if it hadn’t have been for the adrenaline I’m not sure we would have got down to our swimwear in the ice-cold air) to position ourselves safely in the stream for their delayed arrival. Oh we enjoyed the supremacy.

The stream, barely a couple of feet in depth, was deliciously warm and comforting and like a big molten marshmallow embrace. The air above was cold and crisp (and deep and even?), and the reason behind my swimsuit and bobble hat ensemble. (Quite a look, I’m sure you’d agree.) When our fingers began to wrinkle we emerged; saintlier, softer and slightly soggier versions of our former selves.

But if we were going to go down the authentic path then we simply could not omit a visit (or five) to ‘the local’ public swimming baths; institutions which could be found – without exception – in every town across the country, no matter the lack of inhabitants in the area. Attending these baths afforded us (even more) (much-needed) relaxation time; an insight into local life; and washing facilities included in the entrance fee, which often cost less than a five-minute speed shower at the campsite would. Here one really got a feel for the locals – why you were sharing tiny hot tubs and nudity-enforced showers with them, dear! – and in particular developed an understanding of the comfort they felt within their own skin, and the absolute absence of concern about their own, or their neighbours, naked bodies. It was very refreshing. Everyone was natural and normal: there was big, small, lumpy and bumpy, saggy, pert, and everything in-between. No one looked but more staggeringly no one cared. This was just totally normal for them, going about their business with absolutely no clothes on and no sense of urgency to grab a towel. Young and old and all sorts of ability – everyone was the same. But different. And that was simply accepted.

Last of all, and my personal favourite, was the newly-opened (and not yet completed) GeoSea, found on the outskirts of the north coast’s whale-watching town of Húsavík. As the name suggests, these baths are filled with naturally warmed seawater, which – thankfully – had none of the repulsive nasal interruptions as was the case at Mývatn. Housed within a hobbit-like grass-roofed mound, albeit its slightly unfinished state it was classy and clean and understated and just cool. Once you’d done your thing in the changing room (naked, of course) you came out to the sea-facing baths; infinity pools which led to mountainous backdrops, and were backed up themselves by a swim-to bar. We were in there for over three hours, enjoying the minerals, the views and, of course, the multiple glasses of wine.

Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River

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