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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Iceland voted as top destination for 2010 - but can I afford to go back?

Lonely Planet, the leading travel guide series, recently announced Iceland as the top summer destination for August 2010. They are encouraging travellers to visit the country, known as "the land of fire and ice" as in their own words (and mine) "there has never been a better time to go". This is partly due to favourable exchange rate for both the dollar and pound, which helps to make the country traditionally regarded as expensive, more affordable than ever before, with flights back to normal following the earlier disruption from Eyjafjallajokull.

Iceland was ranked fifth out of ten best value places to visit overall at the end of last year, but the publisher is now saying that that Iceland represents the perfect trip for 2010. I would certainly second that after my own recent visit. The country has something for everyone - whatever your age, interests or pocket. If you are a culture vulture then Reykjavik boasts a fine selection of museums for you to explore - how about a trip to the Culture House to view the ancient manuscripts or to the National Museum where you can follow the genealogical heritage of the modern Icelanders ancestors? If you prefer the beach, you can spend the day on the golden sands of the city's geothermal beach just beyond the city's domestic airport, complete with pipes that keep the sea temperature artificially warm and with bubbling hot pots on the shore. Prefer your swimming indoors - no problem, the city boasts several in and outdoor pools suitable for families of all ages.

If walking is more your thing, then Iceland will be like heaven - for there are miles and miles of trails to explore in all types of terrain - ranging from desert plains of black volcanic sand to lava fields and the greenery of the country's national parks.

Lonely Planet particularly recommends a visit to Landmannalaugar in the country's interior, only accessible during the summer months of mid June to September, which is famous for its multi coloured rhyolite peaks and hot springs, situated just 200 metres from the hut. They also single out the Westman Islands, which this time were on my radar, to see the thousands of puffins that breed there annually.

Yes Iceland is indeed a magical place, and with temperatures in Reykjavik reaching 24degrees yesterday, was probably warmer than my own Surrey village. I wish I was still there, but we all harken back to our holidays. Nice as it was, sadly it it is not real life, it is the grind and the graft that I experience now that pays for these trips. Despite the graft, I do for the most part enjoy my work, for it is at least worthwhile and offers meaning, unlike my previous job selling over priced junk to huge egos. I have a dilemma at the moment though, for I am not sure how much longer I can really afford to stay, if I wish to experience more of these kinds of trips - Iceland may be good value for money, but it still costs money - for me around £1200, the bills for which are rapidly coming in. I have the money to cover it, or at least will do once I am paid for those exams I invigilated, but if I continue to work part time this may not the case next year, so I am casting my net around to see what is out there - at the moment it seems like not a lot.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Let sleeping dogs lie

I had to return once again today, to the store where I used to work, and which 19 months ago (is it really that long) did its damned to get me the sack. Thankfully they failed, but I ended up resigning anyway. It's a long story which you can read in more detail should you have the time to go through the archives of this blog this far back. Personally I can't be bothered myself, which leaves me wondering why each time I have to go back in there, it dredges up such awkward and painful feelings - feelings of hurt and humiliation even though I know I did nothing wrong. Sure I was foolish, idiot even, but they played a part too, and I refuse both then and now to take the blame for something that was as much their fault as my own.

Ordinarily I wouldn't go back to a place where I used to work, but from time to time in this case I have to, as once again, a product that I bought from them was malfunctioning - if I say what is is I will give the game away as to who this company is, so it is best to keep stum. This time the Manager was there, who was also my Manager at the time that I worked there. It was obvious that she was aware of my prescence, since she walked right past me as I stood at the counter, almost brushing my elbow, and looked me right in the eye, but choose to say nothing. There she was again after I left, walking out of the store with one of her staff for a cigarette. Once again she looked right through me, although I know that she must have known that I was there. Why then did I feel so awkward about this when it is so obviously her stuff, and why after all this time do I still find it so hard to forget and move on? When I am not there I don't think about the place at all, but when I hear the company's name mentioned, or think about buying the products that they sell, the feelings come flooding back to haunt me. I know it is natural to feel this way after such an experience as I had, but is it natural to feel this way after all this time, should there not come a time when one begins to move on?

I think that to help that process in the future it would be best if I went to other branches, or dealt with the company over the phone, as it is not the company itself that causes the problems (although there was something inherently wrong with the way that things were run), but that particular branch, as that is where my painful memories lie. In the end I had a wasted journey anyway, as the assistant ascertained that in order to get my item repaired (thankfully it is insured), I would need to send it back in some packaging that would be sent to my home address, something that had I known, could have been done over the phone. C'est le vie - lesson learnt, from now on, keep the past firmly where it is, and stay away from those haunted places that hold such memories - the only way to heal is to stay away and let those sleeping dogs lie.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Back from Iceland

A funny thing has happened during the last few months, the more time I spent playing Farmville, a virtual farming game that I am ashamed to say I became rather addicted to, the more I lost the ability, or perhaps the impetus, to write. I hope that it proves to the latter rather than the former, but I guess only time will tell. Now that I am back from Iceland, there is certainly much for me to write about.

How do you begin to describe such a life changing experience? I guess at the beginning, although where the beginning is, I am no longer sure.

During the weeks and months leading up to departure, I certainly had a lot on my plate - with problems both at home and at work. With work it was mostly to do with feeling taken for granted - it started when I became aware that my boss had rostered me to do some overtime without asking whether I could. There were other things as well which increased the stress levels, not getting a pay rise, working hard at my second job as an exam invigilator, being asked to undertake a distance learning course for which I wasn't paid, and being asked to attend meetings on my days off, meaning that at one point I worked 13 days in a row. Add to the mix the constant abusive phone calls from my sister at all hours of the day and night, and worries about the forthcoming trip (the first I had undertaken of this kind in 9 years) and the stress levels became almost intolerable. It was not surprising that I was tired and irritable with everyone, and was not sleeping as well as I might.

Iceland did little to solve that problem, with the 24 hour daylight, but once there and once I had recovered from the journey (a series of delays meant that I did not get to my room until 3am British time), and had some rest and recuperation in the hot pools at the famous Reykjavik swimming pool, I began to feel better and more grounded, and litle by little the stress levels dropped away.

My first day after arrival in Reykjavik was spent pottering around the city and getting my bearings, in preperation for the second day where I took the long distance bus to Skaftafell National Park which is in the south eastern corner of the island, via the highland route that goes through Landmannalaugar. Compared to the hikers and back packers on that bus, I felt very middle aged and very out of place, but comparing yourself to others is a useless exercise and once there I enjoyed the freedom of walking the various trails out to Morsdalur where the glacial river crosses the foot of the valley, and around the Skaftafellsheidi loop. This was an unforgettable day spent climbing the summit of a very steep and very winding hill. When I got to the top and finally caught my breath, I looked out over the most magnificient view I have ever seen - a series of low cloud formations hovering over the edge of the glacier, as I heard the ice creek and moan making sounds that I thought as I approached, were distant thunder. Well after an experience like that, and an hour and half walking back down that mountain following the outline of the glacier, I didn't think things could get much better, but they did.

I travelled back to Reykjavik at the end of the second week and the following Monday flew to Heimaey in the Westman Isles in a blaze of sunshine which remained for the length of my stay. Three sun soaked days walking the length and breadth of the island, which reminded me in many ways of Lundy. It was a bitter sweet time spent walking among the graveyard of buried houses from the volcanic eruption in 1973, and walking around the beautiful blue green island, sitting on black volcanic sands and watching and listening to the myriad of birds - the calls of the curlews and the oystercatchers as they fluttered past on the breeze, circling round and round in the air to protect their young from my trampling feet. The climb up the radar mast at the end of the airport runway on the last day was exhilerating, sliding down the scree slope at the end on my backside which sent gravel and rocks flying everywhere. Walks around the volcano to see the remains of the buired houses, which are beginning to be excavated were no less so, but in a different way.

Following my departure from Heimaey at the end of the trip, I spent three days in Reykjavik, a city which I have got to know now very well indeed - time was spent at the geothermal beach, at the city's swimming pools, visiting the various museums and shopping for books and DVD's among other things, to bring back home. I also went to see the famous Geysir and Gulfoss waterfall, and of course Thingvellir National Park - no visit to Iceland would vbe complete without spending at least half a day here. The trip was rounded off by a visit to the Blue Lagoon, whose relaxng waters I cold spend hours in, before heading back to the airport at Keflavik and back home.

It feels strange to think that just 2 days ago I was sitting on that aircraft among a large group of noisy students waiting for take off, and 3 days ago I was on the bus somewhere between Geysir and Skalholt on my way to look at the ancient and very important church.

This holiday represented so many things to me - not only a break from work, but also from Lundy, and the opportuinity to prove to myself that I can still do many of the things that I used to enjoy so much. It was a chance to get that old confidence back, to get out in the open air meeting new people and doing new things, pushing through those barriers of fear and uncertainty, barriers which have now been removed.