What I learned when Covid unexpectedly extended my holiday in Iceland

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

I groaned too, my fear growing as the line lengthened. I’m the type of traveler who likes to be at my gate two hours early, and I knew the queue would be the biggest hurdle. I stood to the side waiting for the results of my coronavirus test before checking in for my flight to Seattle. Every minute or so I would update the email app on my phone as if that would speed up the process.

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

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

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The coronavirus was not part of the plan. As someone with severe asthma, I’ve spent the last two years fearing but also avoiding the virus. I am vaccinated. I wear N95 masks indoors and around groups of people. I carry more hand sanitizer than a CVS. But there are many things that I believe I can control until I can’t anymore – and this was one of them.

The positive test meant I had to stay in the country for another five days before I could get a certificate allowing me to fly home. (US regulations changed on June 12, the day after I ended my isolation, and the country no longer requires a negative coronavirus test for entry.)

Instead of looking elsewhere, I decided to return to Hotel Rangá, a boutique lodge in the rugged countryside of southern Hella where I had stayed for the duration of my trip. That was a gamble; The property is beautiful but isolated. If I needed emergency care I would be about 90 minutes drive from the capital Reykjavik. But I also felt it was important to be in a place I already felt comfortable in, and Hotel Rangá was the closest thing to home in Iceland.

On the way to the hotel, I sat masked in the back seat of a car while crying and apologizing to the driver for possibly embarrassing him. The driver was reassuring, gentle and friendly. He said he wasn’t worried about Covid.

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

This was a common Icelandic expression I had heard before 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 resilient spirit of the people of the land of fire and ice.

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

The saying is underscored by naivety, Pálsson said. It’s an almost childlike belief that everything will be fine, even when the situation seems impossible.

It makes sense that Icelanders would embrace this idea. When your island has been sculpted by eruptions, endured extreme weather conditions, and is literally being pulled apart along a giant rift, everything else needs to seem manageable. It’s the kind of wild optimism cultivated by living on the fringes of the habitable world.

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However, I had a hard time finding hope in an inspirational slogan. I was more than 4,000 miles from my husband and 7 year old son in California, sick and scared. Over FaceTime, my son asked if I was dying. I couldn’t give him a sure answer.

On that first day of isolation, I didn’t leave my room. Luckily, my symptoms stayed mild. I watched Bridgerton on my laptop, canceled appointments via email, and ate a granola bar from my snack bag. A woman from reception called to make sure I was ok and she encouraged me to put on a mask and walk around the hotel.

In Iceland, the coronavirus was viewed with a nonchalance that felt harrowing. The country lifted all restrictions in February and those who tested positive are not required to isolate. (My stay was a US requirement.) Although I hated being around people, I slowly made my way out.

My room opened straight onto a scene from my dreams. A magnificent field of purple lupins unfurled into a sweeping lavender carpet that stretched to a ribbon-shaped river that meandered around the hotel. I sat on a wooden bench and gazed into the distance where volcanoes loomed and glaciers glittered. I wondered if I was getting sicker or getting better.

Þetta reddast, I reminded myself.

The next day I took a slow walk to the nearest street. The hotel delivered food to my room at every meal. The time felt muddy as the night rarely gets dark in June. The midnight sun blazed pink and gold, the sky was so breathtaking I could hardly bear to close the blackout curtains.

Every day it got warmer. I started my trip wearing three coats stacked on top of each other, but during isolation I shed my layers. As I meandered to the river, the sun warmed my body, which felt calm, loose, and unraveled. While the lupins initially held my attention, I began to notice other flowers: wild pansies the size of my thumbnail scattered among the grass, marsh marigolds lining the water’s edge, clumps of thyme woven into mossy patches.

One evening I ate an apple pie and then soaked it in water heated by hot springs. The abundance of beauty almost brought me to tears. The air was fresh and the mountains nearby looked like they were about to burst out of a pop-up book. Oystercatchers chirped their 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 invisible forces.

On the day of my rescheduled Icelandair flight I had a health authority travel certificate in hand, but I was sorry to leave this place where it never got dark.

I was thinking about my hike into an ice cave more than a week ago. With crampons pulled over my boots, I trudged through the glacier, one crunchy step at a time, emerging into a landscape of winding rivers and jagged rocks. It was a place that could never be experienced twice in the same way. As hard and solid as it seemed, it was constantly softening, breaking, evolving.

Everything changes in Iceland, I’ve learned. I felt the change in me too.

I arrived looking for thrills, but what I found instead was a new perspective for uncertain times: Þetta reddast. Though the quote is a glimmer of hope, it’s also an acknowledgment that the world is wild and limitless. Whatever happens, it will all come together somehow. And it did.

Downs is an author based in Palm Springs, California. your site is maggieink.com. Find her on Instagram: @maggiink.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning a trip. For travel health advice information, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention interactive map of travel advice by destination and the CDC’s travel health advice website.