Iceland: Best and worst

You’ve seen it in your newsfeed, you’ve seen it in movies, and now you’re seeing it here: ICELAND. Not just a geologic hotspot with the occasional exploding volcano, it’s also a tourist hotspot exploding with new visitors every day.

But is it all just hype? Is a trip to Iceland really all that and a bag of selfies? Earlier this summer, I spent a week in Iceland, so I can tell you the best and worst parts about visiting.

Worst

1) 24 Hours of daylight (or lack thereof)

During summer, Iceland is constantly exposed to sunlight and during winter, it sees very little of it. For a traveler recovering from jetlag, this constant daylight or darkness isn’t just an interesting phenomenon; it’s a huge inconvenience. Your body is already confused about what time to go to bed; when you couple that with the sun shining all night long or (in winter) not being there almost at all, you get insomnia-filled nights and very groggy days.

Seljalandsfoss at midnight.

2) Expensive food

I’d heard the food was expensive before visiting, but seeing it for myself was unbelievable. Six bucks for a loaf of bread? Five bucks for a pound of oranges?! Even a sandwich in a small café cost fifteen dollars! Iceland is almost literally a giant island of ice, so not a whole lot grows there. Most food needs to be imported, which means it comes with a heavy price tag, both for locals and tourists.

3) Tourism

Iceland is a beautiful country that attracts millions of visitors each year. Unfortunately, those visitors are slowly killing the country’s natural beauty. Plastic wrappers and beer cans litter popular attractions. Old hot springs used for centuries by locals are becoming overused and unsafe because of microbes brought by tourists. With the number of tourists exploding from just under 300,000 in 2000 to 1.7 million in 2016, Iceland is seriously lacking in infrastructure, personnel, and laws to keep their island (population 330,00) from getting trampled under tourists’ feet.

Seljavallalaug Hot Spring

Best

1) 24 hours of daylight

While initially confusing, having 24 hours of daylight became a huge advantage in my trip. Instead of fighting my jetlag, I went with it; going to bed at 4 am, waking up at noon. Iceland is a very popular country, especially during summer. By ignoring the time on the clock, I was able to enjoy all the tourist sights without all the tourists.

Seljalandsfoss at midnight.
Grjotagja Cave at midnight.
Black sand beach in Vik early in the morning (actually, it was 7 am but for some reason no one was there).

2) Chillest people

I mean, they live in a place named after ice, but Icelanders are seriously chill. When I picked up a car from an Icelandic-owned rental car company, they told me not worry if the car got any scratches or whether I returned it with a full tank of gas. “Just make sure all the doors are on when you bring it back.” When a pile of rental camping equipment cost me five times more than I expected, the outdoor store I was at gave me a full refund, even though I didn’t realize my mistake until 20 minutes after the fact AND they supposedly had a no-refund policy. Maybe I’m just special (which I’m willing to believe), but they are a super easy-going and accommodating group of people.

3) Nature (DUH)

Going to Iceland feels like visiting a land before time, but no dinosaurs. Outside the cities and villages, the only manmade thing you can see is the road. No billboards, no powerlines. Just the road and what God put there (and the occasional crashed airplane).

Glacier lagoon
Svartifoss
Ring Road
Dettifoss
Crashed DC 3 on Solheimasandur

Verdict

If you’re visiting Iceland for jaw-dropping landscapes and awesome selfies, it’s the place for you. If you’re looking for a unique vacation to do things and see places no one has done or seen before, you’re several years too late.

TICKED OFF

But honestly though, going to Loch Ness was really cool. The loch was beautiful and it was a close jaunt from Inverness (the city where I was staying). Very cool, you should go.

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I had one setback, though. To get to Loch Ness, I had walked along the highway on the east side of the River Ness, which doesn’t have much sidewalk. I had to squeeze against the side of the road and jump fences for 8 miles to get there. I was happy when I finally got to Loch Ness but was not looking forward to taking the same route back.

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Fortunately, when it was time to go back to Inverness, I found a footpath that ran alongside the river. I didn’t know if it would lead all the way back to Inverness and I couldn’t find it on a map, but I decided to follow as long as it would lead me.

Following this path was a lot nicer than hopping fences and walking on the highway. It went through a quiet forest, past small cozy houses, past big fancy houses, through some kind of abandoned graveyard, then back into the forest.

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Eventually though, the path became thinner and the forest became thicker. Wearing shorts, sandals, and a T-shirt, my entire body was rubbing against grass, leaves, and branches.

I’d been walking a couple hours, so I stopped to take a break. I sat down to drink some water when I noticed a small dot on my left leg. It was about the size of a lentil and had four tiny legs (kinda of like a spider), but I couldn’t see the head.

I quickly recognized that the thing sticking out of my leg was a TICK, and after inspecting my leg more closely, I realized that there wasn’t just one tick in my leg but two, three, four, five, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT!!! My only experience with ticks was pulling a blood-filled one off my friend’s dog and reading about Lyme disease in Boy Scouts. So I did the most logical thing: I panicked.

I quickly opened my backpack and found my bug spray (I’d had bug spray the whole time, why hadn’t I sprayed myself?!!) and covered my legs. Then, remembering terrible stories about people finding ticks in their nether regions, I ripped all my clothes off and drenched every inch of my naked body with bug spray.

Since this was my first time having a tick (TICKS) on me, I wanted to get back to my hostel as soon as possible so I could get my tweezers and pull them all out. I was only halfway back to Inverness, but I knew I could get back in less than an hour if I ran. I pulled my clothes back on and ran toward where I thought the highway was; I WAS NOT going back into the forest.

I ran through another field, lots of tall grass, some bushes, over a fence, past some houses and was soon back on the highway. I ran until I was back at my hostel. I was so tired and hungry, but I went straight to the bathroom with my tweezers and started pulling ticks out. One, two, three, four … I lost count after ten. After pulling out every tick I could see, I jumped into the shower — where I noticed yet more ticks sticking out of my leg. I spent at least a half hour pulling ticks out of my leg and cleaning my leg with soap and water.

Visiting Loch Ness is cool, but if you’re gonna walk there, take the path on the west side of the river and don’t wear shorts and sandals in the forest unless you want to get naked naked in ticks.

P.S. No, I didn’t get an STD from the ticks (Scottish Tick Disease).

Get to Loch Ness in 6 easy steps

Most people want to go to Loch Ness and pay their respects to the Loch Ness Monster aka our underwater ally, but also most people haven’t been to Loch Ness, probably because they lack the knowledge of which amulets, rune spells, and passknocks will help get you there. Luckily for all of us, I went to Loch Ness last July and I can tell you how to get there.

If you want to go to Loch Ness, follow my advice. I’m an avid traveller and Nessie fan.

Step 1: Get to Scotland. According to basic geography, Scotland is the country where Loch Ness is. Starting from your country of origin, you can board the closest airplane, bus, boat, scuba driver, narwhal, drawgon (it’s a drawing of a dragon that comes to life and can fly), flying pony, or spacetime jumper and ride it until you get to Scotland.

Step 2: Fit in with the locals. As with any journey, you need to fit in with the local inhabitants if you’re gonna make it very far. Your first option is to dress like a commoner: in Scotland, the men dress like women and the women dress like men. If you’re unsure whether an outfit in feminine or masculine, try a unisex outfit like this:

ladydress

Another option is to wear invisibility garb, which will make you undetectable to everyone but high-level wizards.

invisibilitygarb

A final option is to dress as a wizard, but only do this if you’re prepared to duel regularly.

floralladydress

Step 3: Travel to Inverness. There are several settlements surrounding Loch Ness, the largest and most accessible is called Inverness. Once you reach Scotland and are wearing appropriate clothing, head to this city. Inverness is 8 miles from the loch itself, but you won’t find a bus or train that’ll take you closer.

Even though Inverness is the largest city in northern Scotland, it’s still pretty small, so if you stay there (which you probably will) be sure to book a hotel or hostel ahead of time. You can also pitch a tent next to the river if you want, but be aware of river trolls and kelpies.

inverness

Step 4: Follow the river. To get to Loch Ness from Inverness, follow the River Ness south. You can follow the river by taking a local bus, renting a bike, walking, hitchhiking, running, or riding a forest stallion. Be aware that the preferred currency of the region is nebula amulets, but basically any other amulet will work. Except sparkle amulets. And fart gems.

If you decide to walk to Loch Ness, there’s a safe footpath on the west side of the river, as opposed to the Path of Rage and Gore on the east side. If you encounter a vampire tree on your way, use passknock combination 3R-5R-1L.

IMPORTANT: Loch Ness is 23 miles long and THERE ARE NO bridges that cross the loch or river once you’re out of Inverness, which is good cuz that means there are less trolls, BUT it also means you need to know which part of the loch you want to see before you head out. Are you planning to siege Urduhart Castle? Better take the west side of the river. Looking for the lost graveyard? Better take the east side. Are you taking a boat tour of the loch? Better find out where the boat docks before you leave.

Step 5: Enjoy the scenery. The landscape of Scotland is among the most Scottish in the world. Enjoy the land’s natural beauty, whether you’re sitting on a bus, a forest stallion, or your own two feet.

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Step 6: Chill at Loch Ness. If you’ve followed all the steps correctly, you’ll arrive at Loch Ness.

Actually being at Loch Ness is pretty weird though. When I got there, people were just, like, water skiing and having picnics and doing other lake stuff, kinda like it was just a normal lake and there wasn’t a giant monster that lived there. Idiots.

I maintained a respectful distance from the lake’s edge and cast a protective spell over the lake and its local inhabitants and all those who seek for the peaceful existence of our underwater ally.

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lochness2

I didn’t die in Europe

A year ago, I landed in Europe for a three-week backpacking trip. I didn’t plan to take many pictures, I didn’t plan to blog about it, I didn’t plan to become a full-time traveller — I didn’t even plan to have a good time. I just had one goal: survive.

I’d bought the plane tickets in the middle of the night during my last semester of college without thinking. I tried to refund them afterward, regretting my decision. I would be travelling alone and therefore would probably be mugged/raped/killed.

Unable to refund the tickets and putting a good face on for all my friends at home, I forced myself to get on the plane. Equipped with a new jacket, waterproof boots (at least I THOUGHT they were waterproof), and a backpack with only two outfits, I landed in Europe hoping to survive.

The next three weeks were the craziest, coolest, funnest, most empowering three weeks I’d ever had. I slept on stranger’s couches, tried new food, visited old friends, learned new things about myself, did things I never thought I’d do, saw things I’d always wanted to see, and discovered things I didn’t even know existed. They literally changed me and set a new course for my life.

I’m so grateful to everyone who made last year’s trip possible. Whether it was giving me a tip about new food to try, hooking me up with a couch to crash on, or giving me a ride somewhere, I am so grateful.

I’m also grateful to have so many new friends from all over the world following me now. Your travel tips and friendship make me feel so much safer and more confident as I travel.

I’m grateful to have the opportunity, money, and connections to make travel my current lifestyle. I’m so flipping blessed it’s crazy.

 

Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia

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London Temple in Surrey, England

londontemple

 

Oslofjord in Oslo, Norway

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A Roman arch in Verona, Italy

italy

 

Feldkirch, Austria

austria

 

Walensee, Switzerland

switzerland

 

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

germany

 

A vine-covered house in Howth, Ireland

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This was originally a post on my Instagram, but I thought I’d post it here so it’d be easier to find later.

How to go to a Russian banya

Stripped naked + stuck in a hot room + drowned in ice water + beat with leaves = a Russian banya.

Banyas are the Russian version of saunas, except they make you want to die while you’re in them. They’re real great when it’s all finished, though.

There are three general areas of the banya: the hot room, the cold room, and the hangout room.

In the hot room, the temperature rises above 150°F (70°C) and the humidity reaches 80% or higher, so you just sit and sweat and sweat and sweat. Because you’re sweating so much, you’re supposed wear nothing but a pair of slippers and a felt hat. The hat protects your head from getting too hot and the slippers prevent you from slipping because the floor and your feet are covered in water and sweat.

Sitting there, your heart starts beating hecka fast and you start breathing like you’re running a marathon.

As if that’s not bad enough, you’re also supposed to hit yourself (or have a friend hit you) with a bushel of birch leaves because #Russia.

But slow down there, Turbo! If you’re new to the banya world, don’t sit in the hot room longer than 10 minutes or you’ll pass out and wake up naked on the floor surrounded by Russians. This isn’t a Ke$ha music video, so pace yourself.

After the hot room, you’re supposed to drench your body in ice-cold water. According to Russian folk wisdom, anything involving ice water and buckets is healthy. The idea here is that the hot room opens up your pores and the cold water closes them, squeezing out any nastiness inside.

To cover yourself in ice water you can 1) jump into a pool of ice water (terrible), 2) lay in a tub of ice water (also terrible), or 3) dump ice water on your head (really terrible). If none of these options are available, just go outside and roll in the snow (which is terrible too).

After this hot/cold torture, you’ll go to the hangout room and relax. Take 15 minutes to recover, then go back in and do the hot/cold process all over again. Repeat four times or until you pass out (but remember that I don’t recommend that option).

Afterward, you’ll feel very refreshed. Your blood has circulated through your whole body, you’ve sweated a lot of junk from your system, and the combination of hot and cold leaves your skin with a nice crackly feeling.

But you’ll also be very very tired. You basically just ran a couple marathons and did five ice bucket challenges, so just go to the closest donut shop and chill for the rest of the day (there’s a Krispy Kreme right off of Red Square).

donuts

Pro tips:

-Banyas are supposed to be a social event, so bring a friend if you can. Otherwise you’ll just be that weird naked guy sitting in the corner alone (as opposed to that cool naked guy surrounded by his closest naked friends).

-In between hot/cold sessions, instead of going to the hangout room, if you can find a big tub of warm water to chill in, do it. I did and it was one of the most relaxing things of my life.

-The most authentic banyas are the ones at people’s summer homes. So if you want the real experience, just go into the middle of the countryside, find a stranger’s house, and crawl into their banya!

-If you don’t feel like playing Goldilocks with a stranger’s banya or are stuck in the city, I recommend Sanduny in Moscow. The prices there range from pretty cheap to pretty expensive. I did something in-between and it only cost me $40 (because the exchange rate was bomb). It would have been $10-$15 cheaper if I’d brought my own slippers, hat, and birch branch, though, so if you want to save money, buy those things before coming to the banya (you can find them at a grocery store).

Here’s a video I made right after I went in January!!!!!

Do you want to see a castle?

Neuschwanstein (pronounced noy-shvon-stein) is a real-life fairy tale castle. It was built in the late 1800’s on the side of a mountain in Germany. The idea behind the architecture was to mix old and new, making it look both authentic and like something out of a storybook.

Because of its fairy tale-esque look, Walt Disney used it as the model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty, which is the same castle that was later built in Disneyland.

When I visited, it was the middle of winter. A fresh coat of snow made everything look clean and muffled any sound from the cars on the highway below. A steady drizzle of snowflakes made the air sparkle and low clouds made the castle look like it was floating in the sky.

noy1 noy2

noy3
Here’s your Prince Charming lololololololol

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The cliffs behind the castle.
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The valley below.

Bucket list: Road trip through the Alps

I don’t think people in the U.S. appreciate how close Italy is to Austria and Germany. I also don’t think people in the U.S. can find Austria or Germany on a map. (Tbh, I still can’t: What kind of loser looks at a map all day lol?)

So here’s a little geography (for all of us):

As we all can see, Italy is the boot at the bottom, Austria looks like a guy rolling on the ground cuz he just got kicked in the crotch with his legs above Italy, and Germany is the big green country above that.

So now we know: Italy is very close to Germany and Austria (aka Crotchstria). In fact, if you’re ever visiting Austria and you want to visit the Matterhorn (a supes cool mountain Walt Disney built), the fastest way there is to drive south into Italy, then north again.
Anyway, so northern Italy is where I first got a glimpse of the Alps. I was on a train from Milan to Verona and I could see the foothills of the Alps popping out of the ground in the otherwise flat Italian countryside. From a distance, they looked like any other mountains. After sticking around in Verona for a couple days, me and my cool Couchsurfing host decided to take a road trip to Austria.
Driving into the Alps was breathtaking. The mountains were HUGE. With gradual inclines and sheer cliffs, covered in trees and streams and snow (I’m a sucker for snow), the tops peeking into the sky and scraping clouds, I was completely blown away.
Bad pic.
Literally, no picture is good enough.
Keep in mind, I live in Utah which also has crazy cool mountains, but the Rockies look like baby mountains compared to the Alps. The further we got into Austria, the more the Alps dominated the sky.
A panoramic view I got of Walensee in Switzerland.
Eventually, I made it to Feldkirch Austria, a cool town close to the borders of Germany, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein, so I got to visit all those places in a day (Wooow! ~Such travel.~) Feldkirch’s a nifty little town with a castle, clear blue river, neat town square, and very Snow White-ish architecture.
Feldkirch and me. I am looking fly TO DEATH.
After my little jaunt through the Alps, I had to jump back on a plane in Milan, so I hopped on a bus and was back in Italy in just a couple of hours (cuz IT’S SO CLOSE).
So if you’re headed to Italy, don’t forget to check out the Alps, man!

P.S. I want to give a shoutout to Marvin Veit (pronounced “Fight!”) and his family for hosting me in Austria. It was so nice to be in a real house and eat real food after hostels and hotels and restaurants!

Fight!

Why it’s worth going to Russia.

Almost six years ago today, I got my mission call to serve in Russia. When I first realized I would be serving in Russia, I was like, “Crap. Russia.” I didn’t want to go to Russia. The language seemed super hard, the culture and history didn’t seem very interesting, the people never smiled, and I knew it would be a challenge living in a country that had no technology, not even have cars or indoor plumbing.

When I got there in November 2009, I started learning what Russia was actually like.

No technology
First, there ARE cars and indoor plumbing. Before I went to Russia, I thought horses were still the main mode of transportation (the only things I knew about Russia, I’d learned from Fiddler on the Roof and Anastasia, so can you blame me????), but after being in Russia for a day I quickly realized that cars, indoor plumbing, and even light bulbs are just as common in Russia as they are in America. In fact, the biggest cities and tallest buildings I’ve ever seen are in Russia, so it is definitely just as modern and developed as America.



Unfriendly people
Everyone in America told me that Russians never smiled and were a pretty tough people to befriend. HOWEVER, some of the FIRST THINGS I saw in Russia were couples walking outside holding hands and SMILING, friends walking around together and SMILING, and people just looking like normal people, not like the communist robots I’d heard about. I realized that most of the Americans who’d told me about Russia had never actually been there, so how would they know what Russians are actually like?

Climate
Russia is effing cold. I had heard the word “cold” before my mission, but never actually knew what it meant. I’d lived in California basically my whole life, so the coldest I’d ever felt was, like, 32°F. When I got to Russia, winter was just starting, so it was 32ish°, which I thought was the coldest it could ever be. I was so cold, I wore two scarves: one for my neck and the other for my face. People told me I looked like a Muslim woman.

They’d laugh and say, “You know it’s going to get colder, right?” and I’d laugh and say, “That’s not even possible, right?” But it did get colder. The coldest I ever felt was -40° (which is where Fahrenheit and Celsius meet), but that wasn’t typical. -5°F to -15°F was pretty normal. Cold, but livable.

I learned to enjoy the cold, so much so that when I went back to Russia after my mission, I made sure to go during the winter. To me, Russia isn’t Russia if your nose hairs don’t freeze.

Hard language
Yeah, Russian’s hard, at least for me, no getting around that. The alphabet only takes, like, two weeks to learn, but actually speaking the language sucks butt. However, I think being able to understand is much more important than being able to express yourself. Listening for the few words I understood and paying attention to context went a long way in helping me understand what people were saying to me. And, since I had a mission companion, I could rely on him to say what needed to be said.

So the language is daunting, but it isn’t everything.

Uninteresting history and culture
So Russians may not be the cold-hearted people that Americans make them out to be, but they certainly have a colorful history. They’ve existed as a people for nearly 1,000 years, so of course they’ve had some super interesting stuff happen. They were invaded by Huns, they drove the Huns out, they had fake tsars the people elected, they had real tsars the people killed, they had fake tsars they elected then decided to kill, they have beautiful literature and art, they had communism, they sent the first man into space, they had Stalin, they have Putin, and BORIS NEMTSOV WAS SHOT FIVE DAYS AGO OH MY GOSH WHERE IS THE TRUTH AT? So, interesting stuff.

Of course, I didn’t know a lot of this while I was actually living in Russia since I was busy doing the WORK OF THE LORD, but I learned it in college after and it explained a lot of what I’d seen on my mission. So definitely take a Russian history course if you get the chance, especially if you’ve been to Russia before and you’re wondering “What the eff???”

So I ended up having a blast in Russia. I finished my mission three and a half years ago, but I really wanted to go back, so that brings us to the next part of this story ….