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A Backpacker's Tale

Hitchhiking Iceland with an Unlikely Friend

I had somehow found a way to follow through with my word.

I had promised my friends a thousand times I’d come visit them, and you may think Los Angeles to Istanbul may take a lot to reach, that I shouldn’t have made such a large promise, but I knew it just took a little more motivation to reach them, not time but a simple boost in my work ethic and I’d be on my way. So enrolling in 27 units seemed like a pretty valid excuse to say there wasn’t any wiggle space for a trip across the world. However, I missed them, and even though I had a million better opportunities to go visit them, I chose to not wait any longer and I was set on finding a way to see them now, among the chaos I would find a way. But this isn’t about getting to Turkey, although it may be important to know why I even left in the first place, it’s about the unexpected friend I’d make on the way.

I came back from my self-discovery excursion up north and started at my two schools. My boss laughed when I sent my schedule, asking me rhetorically if I expected to receive any hours with ZERO availability. So logistically speaking, if I work a total of 0 hours, I’ll make a total of 0 dollars, which would lead me to be able to buy approximately… 0 plane tickets. I had no chance of finding a job with this schedule, most people would probably think to themselves they are doing me a favor by not hiring me, but I was determined. I recalled a friend mentioning a possible job, as in job I mean a way for someone to abuse my need of work and push me to my limits for below minimum wage, but I was willing to take it. So before I knew it, I was going to class until ten at night, then heading to a nearby warehouse where I could work my ass off for a few hours during the night shifts, and then head back to school to do homework before classes started again in the morning. I wouldn’t do this the next day allowing myself to rest, but the day after I’d repeat the grueling process. Eventually, 500 dollars were in my account and that’s all I needed. I bought the cheapest plane tickets I could find, yes I’m spending 13 hours in Denmark and ten in Iceland, which some people would think is right at the border of too long to stay in an airport as well as too short to leave it, but I would find a way to make the best of it.

So here I am, 40 dollars to my name, getting dropped off by my sister at LAX, telling my family I was taking a week off from school to go to Arizona, which I find hilarious after everything I’ve done, that they were willing to believe this. I was on a mission as soon as I got to my gate to find someone I could hitch a ride with into Reykjavik for hopefully 0 dollars. I immediately turned to the man sitting closest to me and tried to start a conversation, he was a burly man in all black, as I soon as I got his attention he slowly turned towards me glaring, screaming in his facial expressions for me to F off, and then turned back around. This wasn’t going to be easy, was it?

It was early before the flight and there weren’t many people at the gate yet, I noticed a girl close to my age and although I knew she was probably in the same boat as I, I figured I could go strike up a conversation while I waited for more people to come around. I sat there for thirty minutes across from her trying to figure out what to say. As I was thinking it through, I noticed her foreign designed shoes, she was also wearing what seemed like 20 layers which made me chuckle inside remembering the time I had to do the same to avoid paying extra for my luggage in India, literally grabbing it out of the hands of the flight attendant and throwing enough layers onto my body to impress an Eskimo and shrink the size of my luggage by half. I came up with the perfect yet simple conversation starter, I’d ask her if she was from Iceland. When it came time to do so I got her attention and after the first sound she made I knew she was, in fact, not from Iceland, do I still ask the question? As I thought about it for longer than what was probably socially acceptable, I mumbled the words and she replied, “No, I’m from Germany.” Her English almost undetectable of an accent. “Sorry for looking so homeless by the way,” she said, followed by a friendly smile. I laughed and introduced myself and she introduced herself as Jo. She told me she was going back home to Berlin after traveling California for two months, and we began to have a conversation that would push aside the mission of finding a ride from my mind.

Her story was an interesting one, and definitely one worth telling. During the previous year, she had spent a few months traveling around all of India, describing the tales I longed for, swimming through flooded streets from typhoons, finding lost villages in the mountains, taking trains across the countryside of India for days. Then she saved up again, broke any attachments to her home, and came to Los Angeles on a whim, not even having a secure place to stay for the few months she would be here, and what I loved most was that she never had a lot of money to her name, living the life of a true backpacker, counting pennies every day and figuring out different ways to get around for the smallest amount of money. We discussed the “American mindset” of traveling, how most my friends believe it is impossible but that they are not usually willing to push their limits to find out if it really is, like owning three shirts and one pair of shoes for three years like Jo, or working through the night while taking the class load of two full time students as I did for this ticket and then willingly leave knowing your screwed if any sudden charges come around that will take your forty dollar savings away from you.

I was so invested in the conversation that when I finally looked around, people were getting up to board. I looked at Jo and as if able to read my mind she said, “I’ve flown with them before, they are pretty chill and we can easily switch a seat.” We sat down and thank God the seat beside me was empty. Eventually, the other man in our row would leave and we’d have a row of 4 seats to ourselves as we embarked on our 9-hour flight to Iceland. We spent most of the beginning of the flight talking more, but she had a talent I’ve dreamed about having—being able to sleep on a plane. We took turns to sprawl across the row, resting our heads on the others lap, in between shifts sharing stories about home. One memory that will always stick out is her telling me a story of how she got out of a ticket in Germany when her car was falling apart, and to make the story more realistic, I made her imitate the police officer in German. Using every muscle in her body she made the most extravagant facial expressions, and I sat there laughing my ass off for 20 minutes in that plane having no clue what the hell she was even saying.

We finally landed and had decided to try and continue to find a ride into town. We stepped outside and were whipped by the freezing air, causing us to immediately walk back inside and throw every other layer we owned onto our bodies. We asked each person walking out for a ride, asked the taxi cab drivers for a discounted five-minute drive down the road, and even asked bus drivers to stop early and throw us out real fast. No one. I thought Iceland was supposed to be the friendliest country around! So we walked around the parking lot for an additional 20 minutes, unable to understand which way was the exit of the airport, until we finally made it onto the highway and stuck our thumbs out. I made sure it was Jo who was throwing her thumb in the air the most as she had an innocent charm to her that I hoped people would see and feel safe to let in their car. We shared a cigarette and let the smoke blanket us from the cold for a few seconds with every inhale, but luckily it didn’t take long for someone to pull over.

The man who picked us up was a kind Polish man, I think, whose English wasn’t all that great. He had just dropped his wife off at the airport and sounded willing to take us wherever we needed. It was only a few minutes ride into the nearest town of Keflavik, definitely an easy walk if no one were to pick us up, and we got out and thanked the man. We walked around looking for a beer, but it was Good Friday and everything was closed, so all we received were some random packets of Oreos Jo found on the ground. Flakes of ice started flying around us, and I would say it was snowing if I believed it could snow without a single cloud overhead. Is it possible for ice to form midair if it’s cold enough?

Johanna through the volcanic dust that makes up Iceland's plains

Keflavik, Iceland

We walked into a hotel and asked for the location of any open cafes. They directed us back to where we came from and we sat with an ocean view absorbing the warmth inside. I bought us a pizza and some coffee, and quickly paid for it when I realized we should already start heading back just in case we aren’t as lucky with our hitchhiking on our return. We walked through an empty, even more rural, part of town and I realized there really isn’t much to do living in Iceland.

We continued to stick out our thumbs, listening to German rap music on Spotify, cutting in and out with a terrible connection. We diverted from the road onto what Jo thought was a shortcut and walked through the bumpy terrain, the dust from the ancient volcanic plains collecting on our pants.

We found our way back onto the road and after three more cars passed us, a van finally pulled over. The driver worked for the airport rental service, and after backpacking Europe for eight months, said he picks up any hitchhikers he sees now. We found ourselves back at the airport soon enough and it was time for our goodbyes. I couldn’t believe this adventure together was ending so soon. I didn’t know what to say. I awkwardly gave her a hug, then another, then walked away and didn’t look back.

That’s one of the greatest and worst things about backpacking – the relationships. You will meet so many people along the road in such a short amount of time, you’ll keep up with a fraction of them, and later in life get the chance to see only a fraction of that fraction again in person. You have to value the moments you have together, extract any knowledge you can gain from them, savor the laughter, and remember later down the road just who it was that influenced who you’ve become. Jo will definitely be one of them. I’ll make sure to tell my kids about the crazy German wearing 20 layers who willingly hitchhiked in a foreign country with this American for a day.

Reunited with Johanna 6 Months Later in Berlin

Sanssouci Palace, Germany

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