Below me, on the ground, lies a slush of partially digested rehydrated noodles. They look like little wriggly white maggots, moving in the dirt. Either my vision is still blurry from the pain of vomiting, or the fever has finally gotten the best of me, because I swear to god, those suckers are squirming.
I retch again and somehow, over the sound of my own illness, I hear the telltale click of a camera flash. I straighten up from my crouched position on the dirt and look around. A string of drool hangs off my chin and I draw the back of my hand slowly across my face. A group of Asian tourists are taking my picture, a fact that registers sluggishly in my virus-addled brain. Several of their cohorts are turned the opposite direction, snapping images of the famous Lutheran church next to me, but soon they turn around to stare, too. It feels like I’m the only one looking at the real tourist attraction here, the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. One of the most recognizable landmarks in Reykjavík, the deep brown structure slumps like a lava flow, a beautiful feat of regional architecture.
I had been so excited to see this structure, so thrilled to see this country. And now, I’m reduced to all fours, vomiting up the one meager meal I managed to choke down in the past 24 hours. And you know what? At this point, I’m not even embarrassed. It never fails to amaze me how swiftly the terrible becomes bearable. Normal, even.
I’ve been obsessed with the northern reaches of the world for as long as I remember—ever since I read Julie of the Wolves, probably. Iceland, in particular, held a certain romance for me. I imagined it as this otherworldly place, where people believed in fairies and the midnight sun provided a natural backdrop for Bjork’s mad twirling.
I’ve also been obsessed with vomiting for as long as I remember. Okay, “obsessed” is the wrong term here. I’ve been deathly afraid of puking since I was a little kid, a fear that has always lingered in the fray of my consciousness. When I was in elementary school, I would pray every night that my family wouldn’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning. Then, for good measure, I’d ask god for what I really wanted: confirmation that I wouldn’t vomit. My mom loves to tell this story (especially to new boyfriends)—how I would get on my knees in my nightgown and ask god to protect me against vomit. She thinks this anecdote shows how practical-yet-neurotic I’ve always been. I think it shows how much I freaking hate vomiting.
Never, in all my vacation planning and research, did it occur to me that these two obsessions might meet.
After saving up for almost a year, I finally bought two plane tickets to Iceland. My boyfriend and I were going to skip Thanksgiving with our families and travel instead. This was a controversial choice—especially since I asked my mother, who isn’t exactly a pet person, to watch our two rescue dogs. In retrospect, this was a wildly selfish move; not only did I expect my absence at the gluttonous holiday to go unremarked, but I also decided to send my two unruly pets in my stead. Do I think my eventual illness was karmic retribution? No, because I’m pretty sure that’s not how karma works. But it felt damn fitting that while my family was binging on holiday treats hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts, I was endlessly purging over rocky Icelandic soil.
It all started on the the plane. I’m a nervous flier and had dosed myself with Ativan for the flight, but somewhere over the Atlantic, out of nowhere, I began to feel the first acidic pangs in my chest. All the benzos in the world couldn’t keep this nausea at bay. I clutched the hard plastic armrests until my fingers turned white, looked at my boyfriend, Garrett, and whispered a sad echo of my childhood prayers: “I don’t want to throw up, I don’t want to throw up.”
But throw up I did. I crouched in the airplane bathroom and cried. I was afraid I was going to miss the vacation of a lifetime. I had this romantic vision of Garrett and me frolicking in the snow, climbing mountains in our winter gear, kissing as the early twilight descended on a lunar landscape. But even before we touched down, I knew in my gut that this trip would be a disaster.
We had rented a cheap room in an anonymous, bland hotel with white walls and white sheets and a pristine white bathroom. When we arrived, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. I’ll sleep it off, I thought. We threw our stuff on the floor and lay down for a nap. Four hours later, I was awake and sneaking off to the bathroom, trying not to wake my man sleeping beside me. We had been dating for a few years, but I had always managed to keep my more vivid bodily functions a secret. He had heard me vomit before, but he had never seen it. Even though we were living together, I was careful to make, uh, night soil only when he was out of the house or upstairs or otherwise not in the adjoining room. But this hotel room was small and the bathroom door was located directly next to the bed. I thought the only way I could keep romance alive was by creating a nice buffer between my body’s disgusting animal nature and his.
But thanks to whatever demonic architect designed this high-rise hotel, that proved impossible. Over the next several hours, I was sick every way one can be sick. I was so violently ill that I found myself throwing up in the bathtub as I sat on the toilet and cried. Afterwards, I lay down on the cool tile floor and sobbed until I couldn’t breathe. Garrett knocked on the door and quietly asked, “Can I come in?”
“NO!” I screamed back. But I did gather my willpower. I peeled myself off the floor and put on my jacket. I washed out the bathtub and brushed my teeth. We had to at least see this country. In the words of my college roommate, I would puke and rally.
We had a rental car waiting in the parking lot. We had opted to spend our money on a rental car rather than tours or bars—we just wanted to see the countryside, the strange natural features like geysers and waterfalls and hot springs. We wanted to explore and meander, to stumble upon old wooden churches and shaggy Icelandic ponies. Our first stop was going to be the famed Blue Lagoon, but I knew I couldn’t stomach it. I was too feverish to be undressed outdoors, too regurgitation-prone to slip into a giant public bathtub. So instead, we headed to the Strokkur Geysir.
I managed to keep my stomach under control as we drove two hours to the geyser, but it took all the willpower I had. We weren’t even 24 hours into our trip, and I was already aching for home.
I am a runner; I’m used to forcing my body to do what I want, even though it screams in pain and resists, begging for a break. I know how to exert my will, to tell that bag of bones and sinew and bile and blood to just shut up and let me take charge. I applied that same willpower to this car trip. Sweat pooled inside my bra and my mouth filled with that terrible metallic taste of stress. But in the battle of Katy versus her body, I was coming out on top. Until we got to the geyser, where I started to understand how truly rebellious my body could be.
The Strokkur Geysir erupts every fifteen minutes, sending sulfurous water 30 meters into the air, showering bystanders with a fine, mineral-laden mist. It’s a glorious sight. Even in late November, when the light is faded and gray and the snow falling from the overcast sky looks like ash from some ancient volcano, the geyser is stunning. When it’s dormant, the water of the pool is a strange turquoise blue, a color that looks man-made, like blue raspberry ice cream.
It was so beautiful. And you know what I did? I went and threw up. Not in the geyser, thankfully, but not more than ten feet away. I tried to run, but my legs wouldn’t take me. And of course, Garrett saw everything. Exactly what I wanted to avoid.
When I was done vomiting, he handed me a tissue and pulled back my hair. He kissed my lips and told me he was sorry I was sick. I hadn’t showered in days. I smelled like death. It was one of the sweetest things he could have done—though he’d come to regret it soon.
The next morning, it became clear that my illness had spread: Garrett had caught my norovirus. Soon enough, we were fighting over the use of the bathroom. The next four days grew repetitive—drives into the countryside, vomiting all the way. It was awful, but to be honest, I was glad he was sick, too. Every time he started clutching his stomach and tearing up, I felt a little bit closer to him (though I did literally back away, because no one wants to be caught in that spray). We suffered through walks in the countryside. We suffered next to a waterfall that was so mighty and powerful that it muted all sound with its liquid crash. We suffered in a field somewhere that I can’t fully remember or find on a map, a rocky expense of charcoal stones and white snow, broken up by the presence of those strange little horses with their oddly human eyes and soft noses. One came close enough, and we took turns feeling its velvety soft snout.
It was the very best kind of magic, tempered by the very worst kind of reality. By the fourth day, we were both feverish and weak. We hadn’t eaten anything but small portions of an Icelandic version of Cup Noodles. We attempted to go to one restaurant, where I ordered something I thought would be fairly safe: noodles in cream sauce. When they arrived, I saw that the cream sauce was really just a grease slick, dotted with sour cream and swimming with small pieces of fragrant salmon. I didn’t eat it.
After we had spent that day attempting to see Reykjavik and entertaining our fellow tourists with my horrid (and possibly sacrilegious) timing, we returned to the hotel, where I told Garrett I was sorry. I was sorry about the whole trip. This had been my idea, my dream. And then I went and got sick and ruined the whole thing. He picked me up and put me on the bed. He started to tell me something. I could hear the beginnings of a romantic, reassuring speech, one that would remind me why we were in love. One that would make me feel beautiful again, make me forget about the dried snot caked on my sleeves. But instead, he said: “Love, I’m so sorry, you smell terrible—” and he immediately left for the bathroom.
And that’s what my trip to Iceland was like, from start to finish. It was a pure disaster, but a banal kind, one that can’t be blamed on anyone. It was also a trip filled with love, but again, the banal kind, the kind that isn’t Instagram-worthy or Facebook-ready. It was the kind of love that needs no buffer or filter. It smells and hurts and makes you dizzy and angry and happy all at once.
Now, two years later, we’re planning another trip to Iceland, a do-over of sorts. I want to see my dream destination through clear eyes. I want to eat weird fish products and take shots of vodka under the midnightsun. It’s still my dream, and though he didn’t have the most wonderful time there, Garrett has agreed to go back. And this time, we’ll be engaged. And we won’t worry, not even for a moment, about where the bathroom door is located in relation to the bed.
Image via Shutterstock.
Katy Kelleher is a writer and teacher who lives in a small house in Portland, Maine with two dogs, one man, and lots of plants.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.