I couldn’t have been in Reykjavik for more than two hours before I was mistaken for a local. A tourist in his late 20s to early 30s wandered past the duck pond I happened to be sitting by, and started waving his smartphone around and peppering me with fragmented questions. The first two seemed to boil down to whether I was from Iceland, and if not, where was I from. After a minute or so, it became clear that if there was any real meaning hidden within his broken English, I would never be able to discern it, so I politely excused myself. I’d hardly reached the other side of Lake Tjölnin when another gentleman, older this time, asked for directions to an art gallery. I’d noticed the building on my way into town and pointed it out for him. It’s hard to relay such an anecdote without it seeming like a subtle (or not-so-subtle) brag. I promise, that’s not what I’m getting at. But I’d also be lying if I claimed to have felt anything but an embarrassingly strong sense of validation as I walked back toward the storefronts lining the main street of Laugavegur.
Little did either of my fellow travelers realize, their queries – comprehensible or not – couldn’t have come at a more needed time. Wandering around downtown Reykjavik with 24 waking hours behind me, and another 12 between me and my hostel bed, it suddenly occurred to me that I left my everyday black cardigan hanging on the closet door at home. It’s a relatively small thing, and by no means irreparable, but the fog of jet lag and the heady ups and downs of leaving home for a full year are sunlight and water to the seeds of self-doubt. It’s not even noon on my first day and I’ve already screwed up. What am I doing here? Who am I kidding? And then the seed grew. I’ve grown so used to being in a relationship, I have forgotten how to be alone. There is no one here to help me. There is no one watching my back. I am the only person here who cares about my safety, my happiness, or my comfort. And I’m the only person here who can make those things happen. How am I already this homesick and lonely so soon? I happened across Lake Tjölnin right as these realizations first struck me, and found an especially quiet park bench where I could stew until the moment passed. It was on that park bench, that Mr. Smartphone interrupted my internal shame spiral, and was closely followed by Mr. National Gallery. As I walked away, I had to wonder how two separate people in such quick succession made the same mistake. I’m by no means arrogant enough to believe I really seem like a local Icelander. But I realized I also didn’t seem like the stereotypical American tourist. I was by myself, not with a companion or a group. I was relaxing at a duck pond, not browsing a museum or exploring one of Reykjavik’s more famous attractions. I did not have my camera out. I did not have my nose stuck in a map. And thank goodness I didn’t.
While I certainly wouldn’t recommend this course of action for every destination, in a city as small and safe as Reykjavik, there’s not much need for a map. By following my nose instead of someone else’s directions, I stumbled across the types of parks and street art that always become my favorite parts of cities. And I noticed more about my surroundings. Had I picked up a map, or stayed glued to my smartphone that first morning, I never would have been able to help a fellow tourist. And I’d probably still feel like a bad traveler myself. Instead, I’m reminded that we are not defined by our mistakes, nor by our setbacks. And I’m reminded that, however rusty I might be after over two years of staying close to home, I am a good traveler. I work to balance iconic attractions with more off-the-beaten-path sights. I focus more on doing than on seeing. I am willing to put my camera and my phone away to be simply in the moment. I rein in my fear of missing out, but only sometimes. And, perhaps, most importantly, I keep my eyes open and my map shut.
Like the idea of traveling unconventionally? Learn why I don’t rely solely on guidebooks.