Flying Solo in Iceland, on One Foot
Last September my friend and I went on a road trip through Iceland. It was our dream destination, and through the magic of budget airlines, getting there seemed easier than ever. We knew it would be a hard trip, and our planning involved many anxiety-ridden phone calls about volatile weather, driving, high prices, wilderness, and that we might want to kill each other after spending so much time together. In the end, all of those things were fine. The weather didn’t scare us Michiganders, we ate budget-friendly grocery store food, and we got along great. But it turns out we failed to foresee one thing: an uneven chunk of grass.
On day seven I fell. We were walking outside our hostel through a field of tall grass, tiptoeing over an unsteady bridge, through the lumpy grass and over to a bog. While heading back, I stepped wrong on a large bump of grass, and down I went. My ankle made a terrifying popping sound, and that was it. I could initially walk enough to get back to the hostel, but after the pain set in I was a goner. In fact, I spent the night hopping on one foot and crying amongst a heap of ice, bandages, bad grocery store sandwiches and hostel pillows. I was in a country more akin to Mars than Earth, and I couldn’t walk. What would I do?
I was in a country more akin to Mars than Earth, and I couldn’t walk. What would I do solo in Iceland?
It became clear that although we were scheduled to go home in only two days, I wouldn’t make it. A doctor diagnosed it as a bad sprain and gave me crutches. But with the tough Icelandic terrain and seeming lack of elevators, it would be too hard. Our next destination had an airport and a flight to Reykjavik in two hours, so we threw together a plan to immediately fly me home, while my friend would stay and finish the trip. The plan: fly from Akureyri to Reykjavik, drive to Keflavik, fly from Keflavik to Pittsburgh and then home to Detroit. All on crutches and completely alone.
Traveling solo in Iceland, with an injury, made me nervous.
I could barely walk on my crutches, and definitely could not carry my luggage, so I had to be wheeled through each airport. At Keflavik, the wheelchair assistant was running late, so the check-in attendants stepped in. They parked my wheelchair in a spot with “good people watching” and promised that I would be “treated like a princess”. My assistant finally came and wheeled me through security and to my gate. I learned that she was Filipino and had moved to Iceland at 18. Her husband, a Polish immigrant, was home sick that day, leaving her to pick up their kids from school, work a full shift, care for him and make dinner. I told her she made my day seem easy.
She couldn’t believe I was traveling alone while injured.
In Pittsburgh, my wheelchair assistant was a woman my age who had recently started working at the airport. She couldn’t believe I was traveling alone while injured. I told her that it didn’t really bother me, that nothing really bothered me since I had lived alone in the Middle East for over a year. “The Middle East?” She was shocked to hear I’d been so far, as she had never left Pennsylvania. We later pulled up to the airport tram, where her friend was pushing an older woman in a wheelchair. She was holding a cane, which she pointed at me and said “I’ll race you!” I won the race, but her levity won my heart.
I was fading by the time I left for Detroit. My ankle was swelling up and I was exhausted, ready for someone else to take care of me. The flight attendant moved me to an empty business class seat and gave me ice. She checked on me and gave me reassuring smiles each time she passed me in the aisle. For 45 minutes she was my mother figure. Finally, I made it to Detroit, where I would spend the next month limping around my house.
I was so annoyed at being dependent and unable to move at my usual fast pace that I stood up, put my knee into the seat of the wheelchair, and used it as a scooter on which I crookedly zoomed through the airport to the bathroom.
Sure, being pushed through the airport, cutting the security line and boarding the plane first were all nice “princess” experiences. However, I now had to ask to use the bathroom or feed myself because I couldn’t go alone. At one point I was so annoyed at being dependent and unable to move at my usual fast pace that I stood up, put my knee into the seat of the wheelchair, and used it as a scooter on which I crookedly zoomed through the airport to the bathroom.
I was like a reckless teen on a skateboard, but it momentarily calmed my sense of helplessness. And you know what? It was funny. Maybe not to everyone else (which is fair, since I kept almost crashing into them) but it was funny to me, and that’s what got me through the day.
I believe that travel teaches you patience, the ability to be alone, that laughter can temper the pain of almost any situation, and that kind people are worth their weight in gold. If I hadn’t learned these things, I would’ve panicked and cried all day. But instead, I made friends with my helpers, laughed at the silly moments and pushed forward, because I had no other choice. I learned that I’m not invincible but that travel has made me tougher than I knew.
It’s been seven weeks and I can finally, confidently, walk on my own two feet again.
Photo credit for Flying Solo in Iceland, on One Foot by Unsplash.com.