Eat Vegan, Iceland, Vegan Europe

Not just ice and moss: vegan eating in Iceland

When I said I was going to Iceland, a lot of people got wide eyed when they remembered my veganism. What are you going to eat?! Ice?

I guess it has a reputation for having a diet heavy with fish and meat, and that may be so. However, was pleasantly extremely surprised how easy it was to be vegan in Iceland. Particularly in the capital of Reykjavik, it is a well-established concept. Beyond that, though, I was still really taken aback that a lot of the service stations and supermarkets as we got further out into the sticks not only had vegan options, but they were clearly labelled to avoid doubt. Winning!

Now, two things to say about eating on an Iceland holiday. First of all, you’re probably going to spend most of the time on the road, which means cooking for yourself on a campstove. This makes things easier in that you can cook your own recipes from scratch with naturally vegan ingredients (beans, rice, pasta, veggies), and apart from this, the main supermarket that you will see everywhere (Bonus) does your whole line of vegan substitutes- milks, yoghurts, burgers, mince etc. One morning feeling particularly extravagant I even made some vegan blueberry pancakes (pictured). However, this leads to point two- everything is VERY expensive. A shop for one week of main meals cost a fearful amount, and we had to keep topping up on fresh veggies as we went.

Because of this, a lot of people in the know had brought their own veggies and pasta etc. with them. As I’d flown on the most budget flight possible, I didn’t really have enough luggage to do this. It wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting given the rep Iceland has for being expensive in general, but with the cost of also renting your cooking equipment if you don’t have it, don’t go thinking that because it’s a camping trip it’s going to be a budget holiday.

However- I was really pleased to find that if you needed it, the options were generally available. One particularly good campsite (at Skaftafell National Park) had several vegan dinner options in the café as well as two kinds of cake. The exception to this is in some of the further out places, where it’s worth ensuring you are stocked up with hummus, bread, and other picnic items before venturing, because even if there were vegan options available in the one café in some of the far-off stretches of road (and there generally weren’t), it will cost you about £17 for a soup. Also, it’s just too damn pretty to sit inside.

In Reykjavik, however, (probably at the start and end of your trip) you’ll be made up. Eat Co has two locations and is the perfect lunch stop for huge, healthy salad bowls, smoothies, almond lattes, and all other kinds of good-for-you hipster grub. After eating limited fresh veggies during the week due to the cost, it was great to stuff our faces with these once we got back to civilisation.

The best spot for a dinner out is undoubtedly Kaffi Vinyl. Taking hipster chic to the next level, this place is a chilled-vibe, low-key vegan restaurant, jazz café and record shop all in one. The prices are higher than at home but not bad for Iceland, and for it we got a huge bowl of delicious noodles and an Oumph! Teriyaki bowl, with a fairly priced house wine. If that doesn’t already warm your snowflake heart, they also sell a range of feminist and gender queer stickers. Yay!

So go forth to Iceland vegan friends, without fear of only eating moss. Unless you want to try the traditional moss schnapps, but from experience I would say probably DON’T 😉

Iceland

Iceland: a one week road trip adventure!

Nature is the greatest artist. Never has that expression been more true of a place than of Iceland. From epic rainbow-pierced waterfalls to  geysers that shoot hot water twenty feet over your head, frozen lava fields, endless snow-topped mountains, and a glacier lagoon where you can get up-close to giant, glittering icebergs that seem to have been pristinely carved by the hand of god themselves, each day will bring you a WOW moment around every corner.

Fitting in everything Iceland has to offer in one week is a challenge, but it is possible to see all of the above if you are willing to do a pretty intense itinerary, with lots of driving. I’ll lay out what we did below, but first, some practical points:

  • Transport: You are going to need to rent a 4×4. While there are some busses, they’re very expensive tourist traps that only go to highlights like the Golden Circle. If you want to get out into the wild (and you should) and away from other people, the flexibility of your own car is a must. You will need a 4×4 because apart from the one main road, a lot of the driving is ‘off-road’ or on unpaved roads that will bust the tyre of a normal car immediately. We rented a Suburu Forrester which also came with a tent that popped out of the roof, offering greater protection from the winds while camping than a regular tent and meaning we woke up to mornings like this.Helen in car
  • Equipment: we hired cooking gear, and a table and chairs from https://www.iceland-camping-equipment.com/ . It was super easy to pick it up in Reykjavik, everything was in good condition and they even gave us some spare extra gas.
  • Weather: Bring a very thick sleeping bag, and lots and lots of sensible layers. Even travelling in summer, my sleeping bag, which is supposed to be warm to 0 degrees, was not sufficient. While some days can be sunny and mild, the wind can be biting at times.
  • Costs: Everything in Iceland is very expensive. Even paying for camping spot is around $15 (per PERSON). A beer is about £6-7 and a gin and tonic, £22. So bring booze from duty free, and pack food to cook with if you and make picnic lunches if you can.
  • Back-up funds: (related)- have more cash available than you think you need in case of emergencies. One night we were unable to camp because a storm, glacier eruption and 90mph winds made it impossible (the government safety website was advising against it) and had to hire a cabin at the last minute. Hopefully it won’t happen, but it’s better to be prepared.
  • Photos: bring a good camera. Believe me, you are going to want to take photos, and although I got some good shots, I got some major camera envy. If you are thinking of upgrading, this would be the trip to do it on.

Itinerary:

Day 1: Starting from Reykjavik, pick up your rental equipment and car and get on the road to Þingvellir where Europe meets North America. This National Park is literally the point where the two tectonic plates meet. There are lots of beautiful places to stop for a picnic lunch. Then make your way to Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater lake of intensely blue water that formed inside the collapsed volcano.

From there, make your way to Seljalandsfoss, my favourite of the very, very many strikingly beautiful and unusual waterfalls in Iceland. Not only is it dramatically high, if you get there at the right time of day, rainbows form in the spray where the water meets the light from the sun. You can walk and scramble right around the back of the cave that is formed behind it and look out at the sheer force of the waterfall. Just remember to wear waterproofs and keep your camera and electronics in a dry place or they WILL get too wet and shut down, as I found out.

Day 2: The Jökulsárlón glacier lake was the most incredible moment of this trip, and one of the most mind-blowing moments of my whole life. DO NOT MISS IT. Tired from a rough night of camping in poor weather, when we drove over the bridge and the lake came into view from behind the ridge, we literally could not believe our eyes. It was like walking into your vision of the arctic and the photos do not do it justice; a piercingly blue lake in which floated vast, imposing sculptures of ice. A seal swam near the bay. You suit up in proper arctic gear and can go right out into the lake to float amongst the glaciers and gawp at the structures, wrought by nature that tower over you in glittering ice. I have never seen anything like it.

Then, camp at Skaftafell National Park, it has the most stunning landscape and some of the best camping facilities I’ve ever experienced. From here, you can also do a short hike to see the Svartifoss black waterfall.

Day 3: Fjadrargljufur Canyon is the dramatic sort of place that is used as a backdrop in movies. Literally, it was apparently the backdrop of a Bieber video which I have never seen but I can see why. It’s a very short hike around to take photos, but you will want to factor in longer for gawping. Then head back on the road to see the Skógafoss waterfall. If you are luckier with the weather, you can even camp right by it with it in view.

Day 4: Did you know in Iceland they bake bread in a pan under the earth in the heat of the volcanic springs? Well, they do. And it’s delicious. At great expense you can visit Laugarvatn Fontana, see it being made, and try the bread yourself. It’s really interesting and the bread is sweet and delicious (it later turns out it is not suitable for vegans which I did not realise, whoops). Then, head to the black beach around Vik. Whatever happens, do not camp in Vik. However, the black beach was more remarkable than I was expecting, and with puffins swooping over you from the dramatic and unusual cliffs behind, it’s a great spot for nature photographers.

Day 5: Drive to Landmannalugar to fit in a bit of the highlands. To get here, you have to go seriously off-road, driving through an alien landscape of frozen lava fields that make you feel like you’re on another planet, ford a couple of rivers, and scale some seriously steep and windy mountain paths. It is worth it. From the campsite, you can do a variety of hikes in the mountains around including the famous Laugavegur trail if you have more time. We did the ‘Brennisteinsalda’ route which is long and challenging enough to give you a work out but easy to do within 3 hours, or 4 including time to take photographs. I would recommend camping here because waking up to this site in the morning is quite something. There is also a hot spring on the campsite which you can use, though the temperature fluctuates rather dramatically.

Day 6: Drive back to Reykjavik, and of course you have to at some point do the Blue Lagoon. I’ve been to a fair few natural hot springs but with the mountains framed all around behind it, perfect blue water, and natural mud facemasks this might be my favourite. It’s the perfect place to treat your aching muscles after the camping and hiking, and your skin that will have taken a beating from the wind. In Reykjavik, I strongly recommend eating at Kaffi Vinyl, a jazz café and record shop that offers up delicious vegan nosh and wine at decent enough prices for Iceland.

Day 7: the ultimate sadness of returning equipment and flying back home. If you can spend longer than a week in Iceland, I would strongly recommend 2-3, in order to take a slower pace, hike more, and see more of the highlands than we were able. That said I have rarely seen so many dramatic and life-altering landscapes in such a short time as on this trip, so if you only have a week, do it anyway! Iceland, I will be back, and next time, I hope, for the Northern lights.

Give A Shit, refugee rights

‘Dangerous migrants’- a portrait of the real former inhabitants of the Dunkirk refugee camp

How many more can we take? The ‘swarm’ on our streets! We must stop the migrant invasion!

These are real headlines from the Daily Mail concerning the refugees that have fled to our shores in increasing numbers in the last couple of years as a result of growing instability in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

There have always been global wars, violence, and instability, but there is no doubt in the last years the world seems to have got darker. Civil war, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and further catastrophic bombing by intervening foreign powers, have forced more people than ever to flee their homes, lives, families, and friends, in search of safety in Europe.

In the mean-time the flux of new arrivals has made many people in the UK and the rest of Europe very afraid. It is understandable. Though I am proud to live in a multi-cultural country, and believe it is an inevitable result of our history of colonialism, followed by globalisation, and modern technology enabling easier freedom of movement, there is no doubt that the landscape of Britain has changed rapidly in recent decades. People have had to adapt to people from different countries, and cultures they struggle to understand, arriving in their neighbourhoods. There is a human instinct to be protective of your territory, and family. This fear is liable to be greater if you are already struggling, and people living in severe austerity as a result of the inequality within our own country are naturally more inclined to be concerned over competition for jobs, local resources, etc. Evidence has shown that refugees granted asylum in the UK are also most likely to be placed in the most impoverished areas, that are least able to cope with the growing demand. And in this environment, the media has capitalised on this anxiety to spread fear, suspicion, and hatred towards refugees. There has been a deliberate language choice to favour the term ‘migrants’; implying that these people have travelled for endless months, largely on foot and unsafely hidden in lorries, because they fancy a change of air, rather than because they are fleeing persecution and death in their own home countries.

daily mail refugee

Having returned from volunteering at the Dunkirk refugee camp on the day it burned to the ground, I wanted to share the stories of some of the people that I met, to put some faces to this seemingly faceless threat, and show that these people are humans with lives and fears, and families, and hopes like all of us. No doubt, there were some very dangerous people on the camp; I have been honest in my previous blog about how afraid I felt of the tension within the camp, and the influence of criminal gangs. The majority, however, were normal people that have been victims of a tragic series of circumstances we can barely imagine having to live through. They include women. They include children. They include teenage boys. Good men trying to get by and keep their head down to avoid the violence in order to protect their families. Old men. All desperately looking for a safe home and to protect their loved ones.

I have changed names where I have known them in order to protect people’s identities.

Ariya is a young mother. She has a gentle, soft demeanour, and speaks English well. She has been married for two years and has a six month old baby; the cutest and most sweet natured thing you have ever seen, with big, questioning eyes, and long, soft lashes. She was forced to flee Iran with her husband shortly after her marriage. After months of travelling, she fell pregnant. Love will out in any circumstances. She carried her baby to term while living in the Calais Jungle. When she went in to labour, she was brought to a nearby French hospital to deliver the baby. After four days, mother and newborn infant were returned to the camp, in spite of the inhumane and unsanitary conditions. After Calais was closed, she was forced to go on the move again, carrying her baby, and ended up in the Dunkirk refugee camp. She always had a positive attitude considering everything, even though she worried for her baby, who cried at night and sometimes became ill in the cold conditions of their shelter (no more than a small and dark shed).

One thing that moved me was the way in which people still looked out for others, even though their own conditions were so bleak. Roza is a large, middle aged Kurdish lady, with a cheeky gleam in her eye and a wicked smile, in spite of her only having three remaining teeth. One day she grabbed my arm in her large hand, seemingly very concerned, and insistent to drag me off with her into the camp. Her husband joined us on the way to the shelter and with slightly more English, explained ‘not able work man, not good’. They took me to a disabled man who had become ill because he was so cold at night. Through signing they requested blankets to keep him warm at night, and we went back to the centre to find some. Roza was insistent that he must have the best of the ones we had.

A young couple. They sat on the high bank at the edge of the refugee camp looking down to the swampy, filthy water below that separated the camp from the motorway. There was fighting around them, children crying, the smoke from people’s cooking blowing everywhere. They held each other, and rubbed noses, and kissed.

Belen is a very young woman, a few years younger than me, who ties her hair each day into a tidy plait and studies very hard to learn English. Belen is one of those people who is beautiful because their personality and warmth shines out of their face; she has a constant, gentle smile, in spite of everything she has been through. She attended English classes every day, turning up with her pencil and notebook, learned quickly and remembered things instantly, and asked for extra homework to complete herself in her shelter in the afternoons.

A pregnant lady. She was asked if she thought it was a girl or a boy. She said, a boy. She hoped for a boy. She had a boy before, and he was eight. He was shot three times. The third bullet hit his heart and killed him. An eight year old boy.

The children that did make it as far as Dunkirk were very obviously struggling to cope with the trauma they had been through, severely damaging to anyone, let alone at such a young age.

The very small ones were so traumatised that some of them were unable to communicate. A boy of no more than two or three, whose eyes are depths of sadness, and who just stares , silently, or cries. He is unable to interact in any way, no matter how you try to talk to, play with, or comfort him.

The middle aged ones (between about 6 and 11) are sometimes like normal children. They play, and squabble, and are boisterous, and would run around having water fights. But they are also angry. They are frustrated where they are, and apart from the volunteer-run children’s centre, had no outlet for their emotions and energy. They have also not had the chance to go to school or have an education. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been, at the level of aggression they displayed when we were not able to meet their demands. But really, it’s not surprising they would demonstrate these behaviours, because violence,  warfare, fear, and a fight for survival, is all they have known.

children dunkirk copyright jamie wiseman

© Jamie Wiseman

The older children (11-16) are heroes. They have a much better understanding of the situation and the difficulties the adults around them are facing, and have undertaken huge responsibilities in caring for their younger siblings, or other children around them. They have maturity far beyond their years and a calm, measured approach to assessing their situation.

I met two brothers. The older, who was 16, told me he was looking after his brother, 14. They wanted to talk to me to improve their English as they were desperate to get to the UK. He asked if he would be able to go to school there. I said I thought he would and would be in around year 11. He then intimated, through motions and broken English, that he would have to start at the beginning, because he could not read or write. I asked, did you go to school even when you were very small? And he said he had started, but then the Taliban came. Motions shooting. Then, schools close. Many of his friends killed. He said he had travelled with his brother for 11 months to get as far as France. They had come with their cousin but had lost him in Serbia. He was going to try to come to the UK soon, maybe by boat, or by lorry. I begged him not to try to come by boat. Tried to motion he might drown.

These are the people trying to reach the UK. They are people who deserve love, and compassion. The media are constantly telling us that people want to come here to change our culture, to bring violence, and take benefits from our hard-earned taxes. Everyone I met wanted to learn English. They wanted to work again, as they had at home, and regain their sense of dignity by providing for themselves. They wanted education, and to contribute to the country they had idealised in their minds as a safe haven. They just wanted a life of safety and dignity, which is the right of us all.

Because people only run the length of the earth, carrying their crying children in their arms, if the alternative is more violent and terrifying than we can possibly imagine. They only leave the homes they love, and the only life they have known, to run with a few possessions on their back into squalid refugee camps for shelter if the alternative is to be killed. See your friends killed. To see your children murdered right in front of you. Wouldn’t any of us do the same in those circumstances?

Love and peace,

Helen