I don’t have scientific proof or anything, but I’m pretty sure I’m a better person when I have a trip on my horizon. Life is more enjoyable, and I am more efficient, when I have a vacation I’m looking forward to and actively planning and saving for.
Something tells me I’m not alone in this theory.
Anyone who follows me on Pinterest or has spent even two minutes talking to me about travel knows Iceland has been the number one country on my bucket list.
So it’s fair to say I acted quite impulsively when Iceland Air had a flash sale around New Year’s weekend this winter, offering too-good-to-be-true-but-thankfully-very-real prices on flights.
Most have heard about their “stopover” deal, where travelers can choose to stay up to 7 days in Iceland as a layover, either on the way to or returning from one of several destinations in Europe.
Hmm, let’s do the math (ewh). Hang out in Iceland for a week, jump back on a plane and head to Europe for another, then return home, all for under $500, round trip?
Literally. I booked my reservation within a day of the sale going active, and it’s a good thing too. By the next morning fares had already bumped up to an additional $100 and continued to climb.
And while I was figuratively wiping my brow, elated that my dream of exploring Iceland would come true much sooner and cost me way less than I’d ever expected, it was becoming apparent I’d be doing so alone.
It wasn’t that I needed to “find myself” or anything. I mean, I inevitably did discover parts of my personality I hadn’t really been formally introduced to before. But I think that is a result of every travel experience.
No. I am a true extrovert; it goes without saying that I love being around people. I’m that annoying person who tries to make conversation with you if we are standing in a long line together. I can’t help it.
Trekking or doing just about anything completely solitary, with no soul in sight or companion (even a canine) by my side, doesn’t even appeal to me. I am definitely independent, but I’ll never be labeled a loner.
A large factor of how much I’ve enjoyed my past travels has been based on my interactions with the people of the culture I’m immersed in.
However, as silly as it sounds, when I travel with people I know and love dearly I am often so concerned about how much fun they are having, or feeling so responsible for our plans and activities, that I don’t focus on my own interests.
Not that people are incapable of having a good time without me or helpless without my detailed itineraries. I guess it’s just my nature: If my crew isn’t enjoying their time, neither can I, and that can add unnecessary stress.
If I can say this without it sounding absolutely selfish, I was curious to know what it would feel like to only have to worry about myself.
Not only that, but traveling alone sounded like a good challenge. Like it would cause me to reach out and chat with strangers more than I normally would have if someone I knew was with me.
Would I still have as much fun traveling solo, without someone to share inside jokes with? Would I be just as outgoing and confident without the comfort of familiar people around me? Or would I become a temporary hermit, hiding behind my earbuds and my journal?
I was actually looking forward to finding out.
As the saying goes, in order for there to be growth, we have to get shoved out of our comfort zones once in a while. The unknown really can be exciting.
Thus, the following few posts will be a summary of just that. I hope my story snippets and snapshots are enough to convince you to do the same one day.
Saturday, April 29th: Seattle, Washington
The most convenient and inexpensive airport Iceland Air flies out of on the west coast is Seattle.
But since one way flights from Phoenix were less than $75 a piece, this was not a problem. I was already saving a ton of money on airfare, and in total only spent $730 on all flights I took within the two weeks, including a couple spontaneous one-ways while in Europe.
Besides, I’d only previously been to Seattle once in my life, even though I grew up in Oregon; so I was happy to have an excuse to visit once more.
Ah, the Pacific Northwest. Fresh air, easy-going locals, and so much green: it will always feel homey to me.
I landed around 9 in the morning, and had a lovely 7 hours to kill before my flight to Reykjavik took off.
In case you don’t already know, getting around the SeaTac airport is a cinch.
I dropped off my backpack/duffle bag at the storage room, took the stairs to the light rail, bought a $6 day pass, and was downtown at Pioneer Square Station in less than 40 minutes, a block away from the Columbia Tower.
While walking up toward the traffic light by said tower, however, I began to hear quite the commotion of voices and music. To my surprise, and utter entertainment for several blocks, the entire street was closed off for a People’s Climate March.
I’d never seen a live protest before.
As they chanted “The oceans are rising, and so are we!” to a full on marching band, I did giggle a bit, but mostly I was inspired by the vast amount of passionate people just one city contained. There wasn’t an age or race that wasn’t represented in the small army; I love to see a united group of people who have put aside differences for the sake of a cause.
Unfortunately, the Columbia Tower, which is the highest building downtown, was closed, which meant no chance of getting up to the observation deck at the top and taking some panoramic shots and seeing the Space Needle from a different angle.
But I didn’t let it phase me.
I kept walking until I practically ran into the Public Market on Pike Street.
The photos above are from the fairly-famous gum wall in the alley beneath the market. Yep, it’s everything you probably think it is: colorful, gross, and overflowing with tourists. But if you’re ever in the area, you have to see it.
I took the opportunity this time to make my own contribution.
I didn’t get to the Space Needle this trip, again, because as much as I needed the exercise before my long flight, walking 6 miles of city blocks wasn’t exactly how I wanted to spend my free time.
Instead, I explored some of the streets surrounding the public market, non-purposefully searching for artsy jewels and hipster graffiti walls.
I was well-rewarded.
If there is one image, one word, that stays planted in your mind after you leave Pike’s Market, it’s gotta be “flowers.”
All the flowers, all the colors, all the smells, all the yes.
I don’t care if you’re apathetic about flowers now; I challenge you to walk in there and not come out with a smile and a newfound appreciation for them.
I took my time in all the crowded tunnels and aisles of the market, accepting samples and stopping whenever I wanted to enjoy a street musician or take a picture if a moment required it.
As the hours ticked by, I became increasingly aware of the emptiness in my stomach. I had reached the point of major indecisiveness because everything sounded good. I know I looked at several menu boards within the market more than once.
However, I decided I would start walking back toward the rail station in high hopes that I’d find a helpful local along the way who could point me in the direction of an authentic coffee shop that wasn’t Starbucks.
I was in luck.
After snapping pictures of architecture and the added aesthetic of cherry blossom trees, I almost literally ran into a lady on the corner. I hesitated a moment, deciding whether I thought she was a local or not, and finally inquired about a legitimate cafe.
In less than five minutes, I walked through Ancient Grounds.
I really don’t know what I was expecting.
I’d been up since 4 am after only 3 hours of sleep–I just wanted a fantastic brew. And that is exactly what I got–an almond milk, Irish creme latte that was rich and strong and frothy, complete with a pretty white foam leaf design on top.
But, although I had no expectations beyond all that, the short experience in the cafe itself was unexpected, and quirky to say the least. Not in a bad way, though.
There were hilarious signs and jokes posted everywhere, there was a plethora of paraphernalia from India and Africa covering the walls all the way up to the 20 foot ceiling. The lighting was dim and mellow but not depressing. The atmosphere was peaceful yet foreign.
The most unexpected part of my visit, however, was the gray-haired, half-pony-tailed, 7 foot male barista behind the counter, who spoke with such deliberate, controlled gentleness, much like you’d imagine a monk would. He was so serious and methodical about his craft I almost didn’t take him seriously, at first.
Yet, it was refreshing, someone taking his time preparing something intended for me because he clearly cared that I enjoy the finished product. He even requested himself to be excused midway through his latte process in order to answer the cafe phone.
He was zen goals, basically.
Different? Yes. But it’s an encounter I think any visitor to Seattle would benefit from. There’s enough good vibes to put in your pocket and carry out with you for a day.
I knew the airport wouldn’t have many healthy options, and the country I was headed to was going to be far from affordable.
Just about when I was ready to turn back toward one of the less enticing options I’d seen, I spotted a sign on the corner that simply said Sprout, only a crosswalk away from the train station.
If you’re wondering, so were my taste buds.
Think Chipotle meets Sweet Tomatoes. Casual, unlimited customization, nutritious, and inexpensive.
I chose the South by Northwest option, but with my own twist, as usual:
Kale and mixed greens topped with tender chicken (instead of the advertised steak), corn and black bean salsa, chili-roasted sweet potatoes, white cheddar, added avocado, and NO tomatoes, all tossed with a cilantro-lime tomatillo dressing.
For me, it’s not what we talk about that matters, necessarily, but the quality of understanding and the energy within our dialogue that counts.
I sat at their cute little bar stool area for a while to sort through pictures and eat a few bites, but since I was still nursing my coffee I didn’t want to ruin the flavor of my lunch.
I packed up the large portion of salad I still had left and walked to the station, downing the last few drops of latte and chucking the cup.
I took an empty aisle seat by an older gentleman on the train, hoping to eat my salad along the route.
When I apologized in advance for the smell or mess I might make, he told me not to worry at all.
Before I knew it, we were in a non-stop conversation (even while I ate), as he began to tell me his reasons for wanting to move from Florida to Seattle, and how he was simply riding the light rail from beginning to end that day in order to familiarize himself with the city transportation.
I hope to someday get to that level of nonchalance in life, without regard for time.
The conversation moved on to politics, our current deteriorated society, and morality, or lack of it, in the world today.
He gave away hints that his career had been top-secret, so important and at times dangerous that even his own two daughters to this day are unaware of every detail. He spoke of them a lot, too, like any proud father would. There didn’t seem to be much he wasn’t interested in, or hadn’t tried his hand at learning. He was full of interesting facts, fluent in over seven languages, and had seen so much of the world. He, himself, was a history book, and I mean that in no disrespect.
My favorite story he told was of when he and his family were in different countries (career-required) and with his pocket knife he and his girls would hand out slices of apples to street musicians and other homeless folks.
Now, when his grandchildren and other young kids visit him, they know to expect apple slices, or other homemade treasures, because he knows he’ll be remembered for the quality of time he’s spent with them, and the stories he has to tell, rather than the money or the presents he could give.
People will always value the way you make them feel, even after years have passed, or you have, we both said.
I was almost devastated when the train came to my stop at the airport. We were still in mid-sentence, and I only had a few moments to slip out the doors.
“This is my stop, I’m so sorry!” I said, offering a handshake and gathering my empty salad container.
“Hey, you’ve been just a real joy to talk to! Take care, and I hope the best for you,” he replied with the most sincere tone and happy blue eyes.
I stepped off the train and it hit me: I never caught his name. All I know is he’s 74 and still an idealist; he never lost his zeal for life or his passion for learning and creating connections, and that’s exactly how I want to be at his age.
Needless to say, it was one of the most quality-packed, 30 minute conversations I’ve ever had, and I’ll never forget it.
I arrived at the terminal at the right time for an international flight, just under 2 hours before takeoff.
Or so I thought.
While printing off my boarding pass I had to do several double-takes. There was a 4 hour delay. I repeat, 4 HOUR DELAY.
Not really knowing if I was reading it correctly, and also not knowing what else to do, I got my bag and headed through security to see if someone at the gate would have an explanation.
But there was no one at the gate, except other frantic and confused passengers.
Now, before you scribble out Iceland Air from any possible future travel options, let me explain.
Eventually, someone became available and informed all of us that the pilot and crew had been heavily delayed the night before due to weather, and due to regulations had to be on ground for a specific amount of hours, thus extending their next flight departure, aka mine.
So, it wasn’t their fault. The airline did what they could to make up for it with a free meal of sandwiches, chips, and drinks delivered to our gate.
Yes, it was a bit stressful, but my situation could have been worse. Thankfully, unlike other people, I wasn’t going to miss any connecting flights. I was a little concerned about my reservations for the following day when I arrived, but besides sending a couple emails, there wasn’t much I could do until I landed.
I do wish I would have known sooner, so I could have spent more time exploring and talking to randomly wonderful people.
In the long run, though, it was a fun experience. I continued to have more fascinating conversations with fascinating individuals, mostly at the phone charging station.
There was a Danish guy, Henry, not much older than me who had been to over 40 countries as he steadily earned his neurosurgeon degree and frequently took breaks to enjoy life (queue the jealousy). Then a young girl, also close to my age, joined us and turned the conversation over to politics–she was nice, but I secretly disliked the discussion from that point. There was the lady from Alaska planning to meet her mom in England for a 3 week trek; her boys were also avid travelers and hardcore hostel hanging kind of kids. There was the recognizably well-off middle-aged couple who happily shared their travel experiences and gave me hints on the places I need to go and participate in.
In short, our 8:30 PM boarding time came pretty fast, all things considered.
Nothing, not even a 4 hour delay, could hinder my excitement for what I knew awaited me the following day.
Besides, since so many people had to find different flights to meet their connections, the plane was pretty light, and I ended up with a row all to myself.