Throughout my four-weeks in Iceland, I met a wide range of people who were there alone to ‘find’ themselves, and I’m fairly sure they didn’t mean waking up Mr. Bean-style and finding themselves on the sidewalk.
It seemed to be some kind of spiritual awakening – a way of working out who they were as people and where life was taking them. Iceland is the land of fire and ice, elves, Vikings, and Nordic folklore – there’s no doubting it’s a magical place, but it doesn’t magically provide you with existential clarity.
If you’re going to try and ‘find’ yourself, you have to keep in mind that nothing is singular, and be open to learning from a range of different discoveries – your purpose in life isn't likely to suddenly appear like Newton's apple, but from talking to people, there was a big expectation it would.
I met one guy who was horrified because he’d recently turned 26. He said he locked himself away on his birthday and refused to see or talk to anyone because he felt as though he should have achieved more. “I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing. I’ve had good jobs, studied, and now I’m 26 and I feel unaccomplished, so I rented a campervan and came to Iceland to find myself.”
I’m sure lots of people can relate to elements of what he said, but his solution came from a place of panic. He didn’t want to talk to anyone throughout his journey, he just wanted to magically understand what life meant by the end of his month-long trip. I hope he found clarity, but I suspect he found a whole lot of things he wasn’t looking for.
In my opinion, you probably won’t find yourself while trundling around Iceland, but if you spend more than two-weeks there and go in with an open mind, here’s what I think you will find:
Things don’t always go to plan, and when you’re driving the ring road alone, you have to solve those problems alone without losing it – there's no one there to console you if you have a breakdown.
I was supposed to make it to this farm to camp for the night, and I never made it. The weather was harrowing – there was extreme wind, hail, and horizontal rain, and blankets of snow over the mountains. After four-hours of driving, I realised the roads I needed to take were blocked, so I had no choice but to turn around and go a different way for 3-hours, only to find the roads were blocked there too.
I got lost more than once, but (to my surprise) stayed pretty chill. I got out of the car a few times, frolicked with the ducks, took some photos, and sung along to my very old iPod, despite the fact that everything was going wrong.
Losing it really isn’t an option when you’re on your own, and negativity is very detrimental to your sense of morale, so you find it in yourself to keep going.
Learning what you can and can’t tolerate is a valuable thing to know. Are you ok with being really cold? Can you survive on canned food from Bonus to save cash? Are you ok with being on an uncomfortable patch of ground for the night? Do you need to sleep inside to stay positive? Is deviating from your original plan a problem?
I met a range of people who were happy to share what they could and could not tolerate, and it varied quite a lot – there were quite a few people who thought they could camp, but when it got to the first night, they were not ok with the levels of discomfort and booked hostel rooms for the rest of their trip.
I wanted to camp for the whole month I was there, but in the end, I couldn’t do it. I caved after about a week. It was so, so cold, and on this particular day, it was raining heavily. The campsite I wanted to stay at was closed, there was no one around, and setting up a tent in cold and the rain would have ended with me in a cold wet mess. There were no kitchen facilities, I wouldn’t have been able to set up my stove in the rain, and there was no shower so I couldn’t even try and get warm.
I booked a hotel room, and regretted nothing. As I drove north after that, the land was covered in meters of snow and camping was impossible. I learnt that I couldn’t tolerate being so cold I couldn’t sleep, but that I could tolerate plans going awry. It differs for each person, and gives you an insight in to the way you like to live and travel.
Lots of problems present themselves as you travel, whether you’re with someone or not. Everyone gets better at problem-solving as they go, but the way you solve problems will probably teach you a lot about yourself. Do you default to the easiest option, or will you go out of your way to find the best option? Do you ask others for help, or are you a go-it-alone kind of person? Do you panic in the face of conflict, or do you take it in your stride?
There’s no wrong or right way of dealing with problems, it’s just good to know how you personally deal with them. At the beginning of my Europe trip, I definitely took the easy option more than once because I got stressed, but by the end, I found myself trying to make the best decision, rather than the easiest decision. In any case, it’s good to know how you handle stressful situations.
4. Hanging Out With Yourself
When you travel alone, you’re your own company, and you have to be ok with it because that’s the one thing that doesn’t change daily. You wake up in new places having learnt new things, met new people, and dealt with new logistical conflicts, but you’re still you at the end of the day.
I decided I quite liked discovering that I’m a glass-half-full kind of person, and didn’t mind being stuck in my own head for days at a time, but if you don’t like it, it’s good to know so you can arrive somewhere and immediately get to work making friends.
If you come out your Icelandic experience feeling positive and proud of your adventurous achievements, in a sense, that’s ‘finding’ yourself, but I don’t think it’s what the people I met were hoping to find. It’s not exactly revelatory, it’s dealing with a range of strenuous circumstances, surviving to tell the tale, and contemplating how you did it all afterwards – and that’s not unique to Iceland, it goes for just about anywhere you travel.
If you managed to find yourself in Iceland, or anywhere else, I'd be really interested to hear from you!
If you want to know more about travelling Iceland, check out my Iceland Travel Guide.