How We Share Stories

 Iceland, May 2018

Iceland, May 2018

When I was a kid, my sisters and I would rush to open up the glossy vacation catalogue delivered to our house in the midwinter deep freeze in Canada. We’d lay on our stomachs on the living room floor, strategically placing ourselves on top of a heater vent, a blanket over us to trap in the heat. With the magazine between us, we would take turns carefully choosing our dream vacation from the azure blue ocean photos in the Caribbean section. Our favourites were always the ones with the biggest and most elaborate swimming pools, water slides, and ocean views.

It’s funny when you become an adult and you take the flight, step off the bus into the resort, and see that big swimming pool for the first time, you realize they took those photos when the resorts were void of the throngs of tourists. They photoshopped out the crumbling plaster on the edges of the balcony overhang. They omitted the part about crossing a big busy street and navigating aggressive keepsake salesmen to get to the beach, all the joys that come with only being able to afford the 3-star resort.

In the era of carefully curated social media posts, photo filters, and risking your criminal record or your life for that epic travel shot, what is travelling, really? Why and how do we share stories and which do we keep for ourselves?

My boyfriend and I decided to work remotely on the road for the last nine months. We even brought our little poodle cross, Ruby, along for the adventure. We’ve trekked across North America and jetted over to Iceland, Ireland, and France. And I will candidly admit that I’m guilty of curating. I’m guilty of posting the most breathtaking, carefully doctored photos. I’m guilty of cropping out tourists, crumbling infrastructure, and the ugly bits from my photos. All to extract the most beauty from the scenery, and to pretend that humanity hasn’t tainted the earth with a thousand erosive footprints. But, is it an honest depiction? How important is honesty when we share tales of our travels?

The reality is that the most typically beautiful things we’ve seen on this trip, while mind-boggling and transformative, account for less than 5% of our time on the road.

Our travel really looked like getting up at 6 AM, groggy and bleary-eyed for a 7 AM remote meeting. Texting with our AirBnb host about paying to upgrade the internet for the month so that the bandwidth can handle our workload and our video calls can stop freezing in a cabin atop a mountain in Colorado. Our travel looked like rushing to pack up our entire apartment, sweat dripping down our faces in the California heat, because we screwed up the days of our stay and the cleaning woman is already at the door to get our apartment ready for the next guest arriving in an hour. Our travel looked like never having alone time, looking at each other across the kitchen table asking, “are you sick of staring at my face yet?” It looked like passing up anywhere dog-unfriendly, desperately missing friends, and putting on pounds from too much takeout and beer. Our travel looked like smuggling a Ninja blender in our carry-on baggage because we couldn’t live without smoothie bowls any longer.

I say these things with trepidation. Don’t think that I am ungrateful, don’t think that this experience wasn’t metamorphic. I say these things in genuine appreciation of the unaltered, undiluted reality of a nomad’s life. I want to tear up the curated images and surrender to the fact that life is full of grit and frustration, dull routine, and arguing about what to make for dinner.

The grass is really never greener. Life is still life, even if you get to sit at the top of a mountain and see for miles once in a while. Why do we keep the truth of our stories to ourselves? Why is the universal and mundane struggle of humanity not celebrated? Have social media platforms robbed us of ability and desire to tell the full story?

***

I’ll tell you a story. Close your eyes. Imagine yourself in a tiny Hyundai i10 on Highway 61, a mountain pass between Búðardalur and Hólmavík, en route to the Westfjords of Iceland. You see exactly what you see right now. Nothing. And you’re about to die.

Okay, so maybe you’re not in mortal danger yet, but it feels like it.

It had been a windy day in early May. Not like “Chicago is the windy city”, windy. Iceland winds are like whipping hurricanes, so strong that the rental cars have a little sticker inside the door that reads “Please hold onto your door tightly when opening in high winds.” Our little rental was already struggling to make it up the mountain switchbacks when a dense fog descended on the road. We sat forward in our seats, trying to make out the yellow plastic reflective markers lining the road. And then it started snowing. And then it turned into a blizzard. Five-inch snow drifts churned wildly across the pavement, pushing the car into the line of oncoming traffic. At this point we can’t see the road at all, just the faint glow of the yellow markers appearing in 5 meter intervals. Headlights appeared ahead of us and we swerved to the right barely avoiding the gigantic transport truck that sped full steam ahead, acting like it was a perfectly clear sunny day. At this point the car is barely inching forward. We can’t stop in case one of those transports surprises us from behind, so we push on, our hearts thumping and my hands gripping the passenger dash for dear life.

Icelanders have these insanely souped up trucks. They look like monster trucks, with huge studded tractor wheels and springing shocks made for a giant’s trampoline. Icelanders drive trucks made for Hell’s highway, and those bastards rent tourists European microcars meant for a quick jaunt to the shops or a tranquil tour of the English countryside.

Driving in one of these tiny cars on a mountain pass with zero visibility expecting to go careening off the side of a cliff at any moment is not a great time to realize that Iceland’s May weather just might be a little different than Canada’s.

After a harrowing three hours (okay, 10 minutes), the fog lifted slightly, and from behind the white curtain, appeared a sister Hyundai, tilted precariously on the edge of the shoulder. A flashing tractor plow was attempting to shove it back on the road by gently nudging its rear end. Recognizing that this car was likely filled with fellow unseasoned tourists, we slowed to a stop next to them and as our windows rolled down, asked hopefully, “Does it get any better ahead?” Two young women came into view, and we realized, “Hey, weren’t you guys on the plane from Toronto with us?” They were. It was surprisingly reassuring to know we weren’t the only idiots in Iceland trying to get ourselves killed that day.

Before reaching our final destination of Ísafjörður, we had to navigate through that terrifying mountain pass for another 10-minutes and ended up in whiteout conditions again further north. That drive is up there with the scariest of my life, right next to the time I ran out of washer fluid on Highway 401 during a freezing rainstorm driving between Belleville and Kingston in Canada.

Hoping to avoid similar conditions on our return journey the next day, we searched online and found out that Iceland has an incredibly up-to-date and accurate road condition report website. The conditions are marked on the map on a scale form easily passable to impassable. The highway we had just risked our life on was marked easily passable with a little blizzard icon. Easily passable.

The next day, when we looked up the conditions for our route, it was marked “difficult driving”. Needless to say, we scrapped that plan and doubled back the way we came, enjoying clear skies and a new lease on life.

A word to the wise: spring weather in Iceland is no joke. My experiences with the rough and wild landscape brought to light this false superiority complex Canadians have when we boast about enduring bad weather. We’re spoiled with winter infrastructure: salted roads, guard rails and snow plows. Icelanders are extremely tough and resilient, living well in incredibly isolated and harsh conditions.

We ended up visiting a small traditional dwelling on the same road to Ísafjörður. The husband and wife occupants, who now sell hand-knit goods, tea, and waffles to tourists, are related to generations of farmers who once inhabited this small low-ceilinged home. At one point 20 people lived squished together in incredibly tight quarters. The beauty of this quiet, isolated life moved me deeply. Experiencing the “easily passable” road conditions that separated this family from the nearest pockets of civilization, and thinking about previous generations with access to only horse and buggy, it was truly jaw dropping to encounter a fragment of what humans can endure.

***

Can an experience like this be captured with a selfie stick? The beauty that’s perspicuous in a polished 1080px by 1080px square, does it move us in the same way that a truer depiction of events would? Would you rather see an impeccably filtered image of the Icelandic mountains that we passed along the way, or hear this story?

Instead of curating a perfectionistic feed, which promotes a one-dimensional definition of beauty, I propose a challenge. I challenge us to embrace the dull, the shocking, the unsightly, and share these moments of our travels in the most authentic way possible. When you visit that 3-star resort, instead of posing in your bikini in front of the crystal waters, cropping out your fellow tourists, have a chat with the man selling keychains on the beach. Ask him about his reality and what it’s like to live in a communist country. See the beauty in his calloused hands and sun kissed skin.

Why do we travel at all if not to experience the reality of living somewhere outside our familiar surroundings? We bridge an empathetic connection to the world when we are present and in the moment without the distraction of capturing it on our camera phones. We learn so much In these moments.

I find beauty in that place. Let’s share stories. Real ones.