What I learned when covid unexpectedly extended my vacation in Iceland

The line for Icelandair at the Keflavik Airport, near Reykjavik, was long enough that travelers audibly groaned as they approached.

I groaned, too, my anxiety mounting as the queue stretched. I’m the kind of traveler who likes to get to my gate two hours early, and I could tell the line was going to be the biggest hurdle. I stood to the side, waiting for the results of my coronavirus test before I could check in for my Seattle-bound flight. Every minute or so, I refreshed the email app on my phone, as if that would hurry the process along.

When my phone pinged, it was a relief. Then I saw the word “positive.” A fist of dread hit my body.

My trip to Iceland was for a quick injection of adventure: trekking through ice caves, zipping around Vestmannaeyjar on a rigid inflatable boat (RIB), exploring black-sand beaches. I had hoped it would help me temporarily shake off the doom of current events and add some zing to my life. But I had only five days, which was all I could wedge between work deadlines and family commitments.

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The coronavirus was not part of the plan. As someone with severe asthma, I have spent the past two-plus years fearing the virus, but also dodging it. I’m vaccinated. I wear N95 masks indoors and around groups of people. I carry more hand sanitizers than a CVS. But there are many things I believe I can control until I can’t — and this was one of them.

The positive test meant I had to remain in the country another five days before I could get a certificate that would allow me to fly home. (U.S. regulations changed June 12, the day after I finished my isolation, and the country no longer requires a negative coronavirus test for entry.)

Instead of scrambling to find a place elsewhere, I decided to return to Hotel Rangá, a boutique lodge situated in the rugged southern countryside in Hella, where I had stayed for the duration of my trip. This was a gamble; the property is gorgeous, but it’s isolated. If I needed emergency care, I would be about a 90-minute drive from Reykjavik, the capital. But I also thought it was important to be in a place where I already felt comfortable, and Hotel Rangá was the closest thing to home in Iceland.

On the road to the hotel, I sat in the back seat of a car, masked, as I cried and apologized to the driver for potentially exposing him. The driver was reassuring, gentle, kind. He said he wasn’t concerned about covid.

“I’ll take you to a store for some vitamins. We’ll get everything you need, and you will be fine,” he said. “Þetta reddast.”

This was a common Icelandic phrase that I had heard earlier and asked a few people about — Þetta reddast (pronounced thet-ta red-dhast). Some even say it’s the country’s unofficial motto, encapsulating the robust spirit of people in the land of fire and ice.

“It means, ‘Don’t worry, things will come together somehow.’ This is the most important thing for you to know about Iceland,” stressed Fridrik Pálsson, Hotel Rangá’s owner.

The saying is underscored by naivete, Pálsson said. It’s an almost-childlike belief that everything will be okay, even when the situation appears impossible.

It makes sense that Icelanders embrace this idea. When your island has been shaped by eruptions, endures extreme weather and is literally being pulled apart along an enormous rift, everything else must seem manageable. It’s the kind of fierce optimism that’s cultivated by living at the edge of the habitable world.

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It was hard for me to find hope in an inspiring slogan, though. I was more than 4,000 miles away from my husband and 7-year-old son in California, I was sick and I was frightened. Over FaceTime, my son asked whether I was going to die. I couldn’t confidently give him an answer.

That first day of isolation, I didn’t leave my room. Thankfully, my symptoms remained mild. I watched “Bridgerton” on my laptop, sent emails to cancel appointments and ate a granola bar from my snack bag. A woman from the front desk called to make sure I was okay, and she encouraged me to put on a mask and walk around the hotel.

In Iceland, the coronavirus was regarded with a casualness that felt jarring. The country lifted all restrictions in February, and those who test positive aren’t required to isolate. (My stay was a U.S. requirement.) Although I was reluctant to be around people, I inched my way outdoors.

My room opened directly onto a scene plucked from my dreams. A magnificent field of purple lupines unrolled into a sprawling lavender carpet, which extended to a ribbonlike river that curled around the hotel. I sat on a wooden bench and gazed into the distance, where volcanoes loomed and glaciers sparkled. I wondered whether I was about to get sicker or better.

Þetta reddast, I reminded myself.

The next day, I took a slow walk to the nearest road. The hotel delivered food to my room for every meal. Time felt squishy, because in June, the night rarely grows dark. The midnight sun blazed pink and gold, the sky so stunning that I could hardly bear to close the blackout curtains.

Each day grew warmer. At the beginning of my trip, I wore three coats stacked on top of one another, but during isolation, I shed my layers. When I meandered over to the river, the sun warmed my body, which felt calm, loose, untangled. While the lupines had initially captivated my attention, I started to notice other flowers: Wild pansies the size of my thumbnail scattered through the grass, marsh marigolds dotting the edge of the water, clumps of thyme woven into mossy patches.

One evening, I ate an apple tart, then soaked in water warmed by hot springs. The abundance of beauty nearly moved me to tears. The air was crisp, and nearby mountains looked as though they were bursting out of a pop-up book. Oystercatchers chirped with slender, orange beaks and hopped nimbly as I made my way back to the hotel, following me like I was Snow White. I no longer wondered why some Icelanders believe in a world shaped by huldufólk (hidden people) and unseen forces.

On the day of my rescheduled Icelandair flight, I had a travel certificate from the health authorities in hand, but I was sorry to leave this place where darkness never came.

I thought about my hike into an ice cave more than a week earlier. With crampons pulled over my boots, I advanced through the glacier, one crunching step after another, emerging into a landscape of braided rivers and jagged rock. It was a place that could never be experienced the same way twice. As hard and solid as it seemed, it was perpetually softening, breaking, evolving.

Everything changes in Iceland, I learned. I felt the shift in me, too.

I arrived seeking thrills, but what I found instead was a new outlook for uncertain times: Þetta reddast. Although the saying is a seed of hope, it’s also an admission that the world is wild and beyond restraint. Whatever happens, it will all come together somehow. And it did.

Downs is a writer based in Palm Springs, Calif. Her website is maggieink.com. Find her on Instagram: @maggieink.

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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