Blog: Travelling to Iceland with Blindness
People often ask if it’s difficult travelling as a blind person or if I can appreciate places of natural beauty. With planning and the right people I recently found what a great time can be had. Following the 2015 IPC Swimming World Champs in Glasgow I stayed on in Europe.
This was my first time since making a NZ representative team in 2007 that I hadn’t flown home the day after racing finished! In competition you’re incredibly structured physically and it can be mentally draining, so the prospect of relaxing was exciting and the ability to spend time exploring with good people seemed boundless.
For sure I had some worries. Flying alone outside NZ was a first.
Maybe I’d be an annoyingly needy guest? Would I understand or enjoy picturesque spaces when I can’t see them? After a couple of nights with a friend in Dublin (a story for another time) I flew into Reykjavik (Ray – ka – vick), the capital of Iceland. Yup Iceland, the country that brushes the Arctic Circle, boasts the world’s most northern capital city and has a whopping population of 338,000!
I was guided down the steep plane steps and through customs by a young Icelandic guy who knew all about the All Blacks, The Lord of the Rings and reeeally wanted to visit New Zealand…typical friendly demeanour of staff who helped me get around airports. Waiting at arrivals with a strong hug and Kiwi accent was my friend Andy, who speaks Icelandic! He’s had a long relationship with Iceland and had been guiding trips in the remote Eastern fjords for hikers and photographers but was back in the city for a week and had generously agreed to adventure with me in his time off.
From the airport Andy had lined up a visit with Rosa and Arni, an elderly Icelandic couple. Their traditional house overlooked Reykjavik. In an effort to understand the geography, manipulation of my arms and verbal descriptions ensued as I tried to form a mental picture of the city. We had coffee, ate delectable local dishes and I talked with Rosa who gave me a tour of the house and garden. She wanted to practice her English and I wanted to know the Icelandic names for everything. Rosa’s son, an ex-mayor of Reykjavik popped in to borrow some cutlery for a party…meeting celebrities on my first afternoon! But the wonderful thing about the visit was feeling connected to locals, hearing Rosa’s 80+years of stories describing this land of ‘Fire and Ice’. I think people I meet while travelling have just as much influence on my perception of a place as the museums visited or landscapes touched.
I stayed in a B&B run by Monique, a French woman who has made Iceland her home. Getting orientated to the unfamiliar surroundings and which doors led where was the first task and it was lovely that Monique had gone out of her way to give me a room close to everything…I can imagine struggling with my door only to have someone open it onto me attempting to get into their room if I miscounted! Once unpacked, my first night in Iceland consisted of meeting the local pizzeria, dog walkers, statues and strolling in the bright 10.30pm twilight around a lake that became my main landmark.
Back at World Champs the Icelandic swim coach had challenged me to a sea swim while I was in Reykjavik. So a couple of days into my visit Andy and I arrived early to the designated beach and chatted to locals. Lo and behold the only Icelander (at the time) to have swum the English Channel was our first chatee. He promptly offered to swim with me if the others didn’t show or we needed an extra person. However, Coach Ingi and an Icelandic para-swimmer appeared and after applying neoprene booties and gloves I was as ready as ever to hit water colder than the swim team ice bath. With them verbally guiding me we swam (shivered) 300m around the shoreline, climbed (wobbled) up a rocky bank and then came Coach Ingi’s challenge #2: jump off a 3m cliff. I made him go first to check he made a splash…which he did. I took a deep breath, jumped, and also made a splash (phew)!
Over five days the Two Kiwis explored many local areas and I can’t single out one experience. Circumnavigating a peninsula while watching golf being played and zillions of arctic terns crying out, walking city streets, attending an organ recital at the big Hallgrímskirkja cathedral atop the hill, Harpa concert hall for the architecture, Reykjavik town hall with a large tactile map of Iceland (which we may have covertly touched), visiting Árbær folk museum where I patted turf roofing and smelt and listened to weavers in the attic of a reconstructed farmhouse - all merged into a fulfilling cultural picture. We also ventured slightly further afield to Krísuvík; a geothermal area similar to Rotorua with steam, bubbling substances and smells.
Along the way interesting stories of Vikings, landscapes, botany and Andy’s Icelandic knowledge were abundant.
FOOD: Restaurants in Iceland are expensive, but very yummy - we mixed a couple of nights out with some fine homemade omelettes and picnics. I fell for Skyr, an Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt (so good). Seafood options are many - along with tourism, fishing is a key industry. I didn’t come across puffin, shark or whale meat…which was fine by me.
TOURISTY ACCESSIBILITY: We did go to the Blue Lagoon which is Touristy with a definite capital T. But I’d recommend it. The geothermally heated lagoon is relaxing and has silica that you can slather on your skin. A discounted disability price is available and I could take a guide/assistant for free. You do need to book ahead of time - before leaving NZ I’d corresponded by email. They were friendly and helpful with communications, my requirements on the day and are set to cater for everyone.
- Sitting in the 4am shuttle back to the airport Andy described how the sun was cutting the mist over the low-lying vegetation and apologised that we didn’t get to a glacier. I just felt extremely lucky to have visited and to be made to feel so welcome. A major advantage of a friend and guide who, with his language skills everyone assumed was a local was meeting heaps of interesting folk. Andy would introduce me in Icelandic to people we met and I’d pick up that he was saying I was a Paralympic swimmer from New Zealand who was taking a detour home.
- Without exception people were genuinely interested in learning about both of us and telling us their stories too.
- One of the regular dog walkers who plays trombone in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and a man who came up and talked with us about a statue park we were in and his experience of mental illness come to mind. Which brings me back to that for me it’s the people combined with other things that make a place beautiful. He tangata.
- I like the proverb about our lives being books in which special places and people make marks. Big thanks and love to Iceland, Andy, and Nicky who introduced us, for adding colour and meaning to mine.