Iceland is a land where magic happens. Magical people live there — and I don’t mean those Vikings roaming the streets of Reykjavik. (Although, for all you single ladies out there, yes, they are indeed magnificent.) If you don’t believe me about the magic, just ask an Icelander. According to one study, up to 72 percent of people in Iceland believe in elves, trolls, and the huldufolk, or “hidden people” — who apparently look just like us but live in a different dimension inside rocks, which open up (for them, not us) like a Harry Potter tent. I’mnot making this up. This is really what people will tell you in Iceland. They will even tell you that stones which from a certain angle look like faces, are actually elves… like this one:
Can you see the face? It’s okay – I couldn’t at first either. Apparently this elf guards the Elf Park and doesn’t allow bad spirits in.
Elves, trolls and other sorts of creatures apparently wander all over Iceland – hidden to most human eyes – and hiding in plain sight.
There are trolls on that there beach! No, really! You just can’t see them…
But every now and then, they will come out of hiding and even save human lives.
Icelandic Parliament member Árni Johnsen nearly died in a car accident in 2010 but claims he was saved by a family of elves living in a 30-ton boulder nearby. So, to thank them, he agreed to move their boulder onto his property, where they could live their lives in luxury and not off the side of a highway. True story.
So, if you are as obsessed as I am about all this, and if you want to know everything about these fairy people, stop by theHellisgerði Lava Park, aka the Elf Park, just outside of Reykjavik, and ask for Ragnhildur “Ragga” Jónsdóttir, the official caretaker of the elf park and unofficial elf spokeswoman.
Here’s a fun fact: My favorite word is “free.” As in, I like tofeel free (hence my penchant for muumuus); I love to be free (I am a crazy patriot — seriously, there’s nothing like traveling the world to make you really appreciate America); and… I luuuurve a freebie — as in free stuff. I’m the geek that freaks when I go to the supermarket and they have food samples — I will try them all, because you don’t have to pay for it. I also have a large collection of (free) pens I may never use, random makeup (gratis at most makeup counters), and hotel soaps. What can I say — it’s a trigger word for me. So when Icelandair announced it was giving free stopovers to anyone visiting Europe, I stood up and took notice.
I’d never been to Iceland — for some reason, I always assumed it was far, far away. But I was off to film in Greenland and decided to fly via Iceland instead of Denmark, due to said free stopover. It was one of the best decisions I’ve made this year. To start with, it is only four hours away — I live in New York, so Reykjavik is closer than Los Angeles. And with the dollar so strong right now, while Iceland isn’t free, it’s certainly not as expensive as it used to be.
But the best part? Iceland is a land where magic happens. As in magical people live there — and I don’t mean those Vikings roaming the streets of Reykjavik. (Although, for all you single ladies out there, yes, they are indeed magnificent.) If you don’t believe me, just ask an Icelander. According to one study, up to 72 percent of people in Iceland believe in elves, trolls, and the huldufolk, or “hidden people” — who apparently look just like us but live in a different dimension inside rocks, which open up (for them, not us) like a Harry Potter tent. I’mnot making this up. This is really what people will tell you in Iceland. (Note: Wait till next week’s A Broad Abroad episode when I interview the spokeswoman for all the elves!)
After spending just one weekend there, it’s not too hard to understand why people believe in elves and magic. Physically, it’s a crazy (in the best way possible) little island, with landscapes that just don’t make sense to the untrained eye. There are actual lava fields (the older ones, covered in moss, the “younger” ones — only a few thousand years old — still black), glaciers, soaring cliffs, black sand beaches, waterfalls, hot springs the color of frost, and mountains that rise out of flat, verdant fields. It’s a landscape that has inspired thousands of legends and brings to mind every fairytale you ever read as a child.
The entire island is an anomaly, and everything has a story behind it … usually involving elves. It is a place where your imagination can run free. It’s not a big island — you can drive around the whole place in a couple of days — but you can pack a month’s worth of living into a weekend if you do it right. So I now present what to see and do during the perfect stopover in Iceland. Everything is within 77 km — or two hours’ drive — of the capital Reykjavik, which in and of itself is a destination and should not be missed.
1. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
Located next to the Gljufrabui falls in Hamragardar, which is hidden behind rock walls, Seljalandsfoss is unusual in that it can be viewed from 360 degrees — as in you can walk all the way around it. It’s a massive, 130-foot-high waterfall, and in the fields surrounding it are ancient Viking homes that date back more than 1,000 years. The scenery is like a cross between The NeverEnding Story, The Dark Crystal, andLabyrinth, three of my favorite movies.
I have been fascinated by the Dead Sea for years. King David took refuge there, Herod the Great made it the first spa in the world, and Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have been located on its shores. Almost everyone passing through Jordan and Israel goes to “take the waters,” and I’ve always envied the pictures of people floating along, looking like they haven’t a care in the world. So when I traveled to Jordan two months ago, I made my final stop the most relaxing one. I checked into the Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa and made a beeline for the Dead Sea.
According to locals, the Dead Sea — so named because with 34.2 percent salinity, nothing can live in it — is like the Gold Bond ointment of lakes. Its waters and mud can do almost anything: clear up your skin, cure rheumatism, help asthma, clear up psoriasis… the list goes on.
After a hectic eight days on the road, I just wanted to relax. But you can’t relax too much. Across the lake is Israel and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So close you could swim there. Although you wouldn’t want to.
“A few years ago, a couple came here to get married,” an employee at the Marriott told me. “Afterward, they were a little drunk, and it was at night, and they passed out and floated out to sea,” he said; the salinity of the Dead Sea makes it easy to float without effort. “They floated so far, by the time they woke up, they were in international waters, and Israeli army boats were speeding toward them. It ended up becoming an international incident.”
Not wanting to cause an international incident, I stayed away from the bar and read the rules, which include: don’t drink the water; don’t get water in your eyes, mouth, or nose; and shower before entering. I would come to accidentally break two out of three. It’s not that I wanted to feel saltwater burning down my throat or blinding me. But I was covered in drying mud and itching, so I figured I would wash it off in the sea. I screamed, water got in my mouth, I swallowed, and then I had to be led out of the water to a shower by my producer, Nicola Linge. Thank God for Nicola.
“No man can live his life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.” –T.E. Lawrence
Tucked away in the southern desert of Jordan is Wadi Rum, a vast valley cut into the sandstone and granite cliffs near Aqaba. Also referred to as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum has been inhabited since prehistoric times — and has cast its spell on travelers throughout the ages.
The British officer T.E. Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, passed through the area several times during the Arab Revolt of 1917, and described Wadi Rum as “vast, echoing, and god-like” — and it is. Spanning 280 square miles, Wadi Rum is full of silent history. The rocks in the Khaz’ali Canyon are covered in petroglyphs in Thamudic, the most ancient Arabian script, from the fourth century B.C. The sand dunes are marred only by camel footprints (and the occasional SUV track). It is the only place on earth I have been that can shock you with its open, silent emptiness.
To truly experience Wadi Rum, spend the night in the privateCaptain’s Camp — a smaller version of the larger Captain’s Camp nearby — which will set you back $130 a night.
Photo: Captain’s Camp, Wadi Rum/Facebook
At night, the staff there prepares lamb and vegetables, slow-cooked for hours in a zarb — a traditional underground oven covered by sand — and then, around a fire, a musician sings under the stars. You can either sleep in a tent, or do what my crew and I did: simply pass out on the pillows surrounding the fire after stargazing for hours.
Spending the night with the bedouin of Wadi Rum is a magical experience. You are fully unplugged, there is no electricity or cell service, and there is no sound… other than what you yourself make. It makes you realize that in this noisy, frenetic world, the sound never heard is actual silence. It is as if Wadi Rum is Nature’s cathedral, outdoing any splendor man has created.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and poet Carl Sandburg once said, “Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected, unplanned by me.” This is how I feel about travel. While I plan the trip, the best part is meeting people along the way — and sometimes, very rarely, running into someone you adore whom you never thought you’d see again.
Candace and me, hanging in the Jordan Bar in Amman.
This was the case with Candace Lau. As you may remember, I went skiing in Afghanistan last year for the Afghan Ski Challenge and met Candace, an Australian woman who had set off to travel around the world for as long and as cheaply as possible. She is fearless, and cheap in the Middle East meant public transportation — so she cross-dressed her way across Pakistan and Afghanistan and parts of Iran. We met during her Afghanistan leg and have been Facebook friends ever since.
If you don’t remember Candace or her story (which was insane), watch this before you go any further; it adds context and will reintroduce my crazy pal:
When I left Candace in Afghanistan, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again — not just because she was a Western woman traveling alone as a man in one of the most conservative Islamic countries in the world, but because the fact of travel is: You meet people on the road who change your life, and due to time, distance, finances, and opportunity, most times you have to carry them in your heart, as seeing them in person again is unlikely.
So I was beyond shocked when I ran into Candace — randomly, I might add — in Jordan last month. She’d escaped Afghanistan (just barely — watch the video at the beginning of this piece to hear the story; it’s shocking that she’s still alive) and taken a bus into Iran before heading to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.
I was traveling through Jordan in a tricked-out tour bus like a Persian Liberace on the loose and had oodles of room, so I invited her onboard for the rest of the week that I was in the country.
This was my bus. Not kidding. There were four of us riding in it — with Candace, five. I felt like Cher.
You may be asking, “What the heck? What kind of budget do you have over there?” The answer is none. We did these past few Jordan shoots with the help of the Jordanian Tourism board, and my producer, Nicola, had told them, “It’s four of us and our equipment — please make sure we have access to something larger than a Land Rover.” They gave us the ultimate party bus. We were in heaven. And ready to take on more passengers — like Candace.
“Come on — you can take a decent shower, have awesome dinners, and we can hang!” I told her. “Besides, you said you always wanted to see Wadi Rum.” Candace, who’d been thinking of heading north instead of south, changed her plans and agreed.
And so we got a chance to really catch up.
“What was Iran like?” I asked.
“It was great — it had paved roads,” she said. “I was on a bus from Herat [Afghanistan], and it was so bumpy and awful I thought I was going to [vomit], and the second we crossed into Iran, it was paved roads and smooth sailing.”
Candace, me, and the “A Broad Abroad” crew arriving in Wadi Rum.
Hilariously, she also said that her mother (back in Australia) — who clearly had no access to the Internet or Facebook — had no idea what she’d been up to for the past couple of years.
“She thinks I’m in Austria working,” Candace said. “I didn’t want to worry her, so … but I will tell her everything when I go home at the end of this year.”
We also took Candace to Petra, on the way to Wadi Rum.
We got to Wadi Rum via Petra, and after two days, which included a hoedown in the desert, Bedouin style, and several camel treks, Candace left to herd goats with the family of a friend of a friend deeper in the desert for a week. It was surreal and magical running into a friend who had made such a big impression on me in such a short time — and it’s part of the beauty of life on the road, traveling.
Candace is now in India, still rocking and making her way (very slowly) back to Australia. We wish her luck!
WATCH: Women’s Rights, Freedom, and ISIS: Jordanian Street Artists Express Themselves
The problem with the Seven Wonders of the World is… they are usually packed with tourists. They are on almost everyone’s bucket list, they are insanely beautiful, and oftentimes, despite being inanimate objects, they have their own public relations and marketing teams. Which makes for huge crowds (think the Colosseum in Rome) and, if you’re like me, panic attacks.
Normally, Petra would be packed with tourists. I basically had my own private tour of the place — something only people like Prince Charles or Cher get.
While most people think of Petra as being the Treasury — the huge, imposing facade that was featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade — it is so much more.
According to my friend Abdullah Al Wahsh, “Petra is 50 square kilometers. Even if you spent eight hours a day for three days straight, you still wouldn’t see it all.”
Established by the Nabataeans in 312 B.C., near the biblical Mount Hor in Wadi Araba, the large valley running from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba, it was the crux of an ancient trading route — and perfectly hidden.
You have to go through miles of paths like this to get into the city.
“Because it’s in a canyon — and you had to go through the canyon to get there, from far away, no one could see it. For a long time, people thought it was mythical,” Abdullah said. “They picked this site for protection — and access to water. The site has an intricate system of canals and irrigation.”
Ever been on the road and realized you forgot your make up bag and started mentally kicking yourself, because that shizz is expensive to replace? I’ve been there – but there is a super cheap, if perhaps not the most sanitary, answer: kohl.
When I was visiting with the bedouin in Jordan, my friend Suleiman took me to see his (female) neighbor who decided that I needed some… beautifying.
“Women wear kohl for weddings,” Suleiman explained.
“Um, I’m not getting married anytime soon,” I said, kind of laughing, while looking around for an exit. “Really. I’m NOT.”
“It is not just for that,” Suleiman quickly added.
This is what I thought I was going to look like…
According to Suleiman, kohl around the eyes can do pretty much everything but watch your goats, including: protect your eyes from the sun, cure styes, and grow your eyelashes. I also started envisioning myself as Elizabeth Taylor/Cleopatra, so, I figured “why not?”
Suleiman’s neighbor then cooked up a batch of kohl by putting an iron pot over a burning fire, and scraping the blackened char off.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” Suleiman said as his neighbor came at me to apply it with a matchstick end.
“Oh well. I’ve come this far,” I thought. “I’ve had my tetanus shot and my health insurance is still active so… why not?”
Not exactly Elizabeth Taylor… but you get the idea.
I was just psyched that when she insisted on doing my eyebrows, the neighbor (who refused to be named or photographed due to her custom) didn’t give me a unibrow. I had enough of that in high school. Fun fact: Kohl doesn’t come off easily so you will have the Cleopatra look for about two days. Hot.
I later realized I looked familiar. Like I’d just been to a celebrity lookalike camp and drawn the short straw. I now present the evidence:
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Not sure but her older sister’s in the Jordanian desert!
For more on the Suleiman and the bedouin lifestyle, check out this video in which I name a goat (who will likely be eaten soon), and gulp down desert coffee like a caffeine addicted camel: