Horseback Riding in Iceland

One activity I looked forward to during my 2021 Iceland trip was horseback riding. It was a hobby I enjoyed in my youth. Riding and taking care of horses was a fun, meaningful, and soothing experience, especially a member of the Autistic community. It taught me how to build connection and responsibility while handling my then horse, Wally. Unfortunately, there were no chances to ride during my first visit to the Land of Fire and Ice in 2005. It has remained atop my must-do list for years. So I booked a tour courtesy of Íshestar, a reputable equine tourism company outside Reykjavík. Needless to say, I was most excited to get this scratched off the list!

As the riding center was close to the capital, a staff member picked me up at the city’s main bus terminal. Upon arrival I was greeted with open arms and offered refreshments; an ideal start to what would prove to be a rigorous tour.

My fellow tour members and I were shown a brief video demonstrating the do’s and don’ts of riding a horse, much of this I remembered from my riding days. It had been many years since I was last in the saddle, so it was good to have a refresher. We were also provided with thick, orange rain suits because the weather had turned cold and rainy. I felt a bit leery about riding a horse in such conditions, but decided to go with the flow.

I was given a brown steed named Stjörnin. Like any horse in his native country, he was short in height with a stocky body frame and a long, thick mane. He was quite different from the tall, statuesque horses of Europe and the Americas. I wondered how he would handle a tall person like me. Luckily, Stjörnin had no trouble bearing me the whole time. He was kind, and showed no sign of unruliness. At first, it was a challenge controlling him, particularly keeping him still. I got the hang of it when I remembered to gently pull his reins.

The tour mainly involved riding through ancient lava fields along a choice of trails. One was for beginners while the other was for more experienced riders. I chose the latter. It was a longer trail too, and I was glad to take advantage. Thrilling though it was, I was not quite prepared for such a bumpy journey! For example, our guides gave us the opportunity to trot through the trail, which made me feel uncomfortable. I was a tall person riding quickly on a short horse through rocky paths, worried about falling. By good graces, that did not occur.

It was difficult trekking through the cold rain. I was glad for the waterproof suit, but had no waterproof gloves. I should have been better prepared, given how unpredictable Iceland’s climate is. I did my best to cover my hands with my sleeves, but they were still frigid. Regardless, this did not prevent me from having a fascinating escapade. It was a true delight riding Stjörnin through the dramatic lava fields. The landscapes were barren but peaceful. They go on for miles and miles with little to no buildings in sight. It was certainly a picture postcard moment.

Riding in Iceland is a worthwhile activity which I heartily recommend. I thank Íshestar for giving us a wonderful and educational experience. It was thoroughly enjoyable relearning how to handle a horse, and to finally do it in the incredibly scenic Icelandic wilderness.

My Experiences with Traveling Alone (So Far)

Traveling alone can be intimidating for many people. They may feel uncomfortable visiting an unfamiliar place by themselves. They may worry about bad things happening with no one to help. Meanwhile, there are some who prefer to travel solo. They like having more freedom while on vacation. Dealing with travel-mates can be a challenge since different people inevitably reveal different holiday preferences. As someone with years of travel experience, I have done it both solo and with others. For this post I would like to cover the times I traveled alone. They surely had their ups and downs, but they made me more independent.

New York City – 2014

I was in a long-distance relationship with a guy who lived in the Big Apple. I took the Megabus from Boston to New York. It was my first time traveling without my family. I felt nervous yet excited, and more mature. It went so well, I did it twice more. The third time I stayed with my friend for a week. While he worked, I would take the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan and spend the day there.

Lower Manhattan Skyline

Getting around the city alone was no hardship, though I would sometimes have to navigate by Google Maps. I had been in NYC many times already so I was ‘sorta’ familiar with the area. Fun activities included walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, shopping in SoHo, and hitting the various restaurants in Greenwich Village. It was fun exploring the diverse neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Yummy Margherita Pizza!

Riding the subway was not a problem either. It is quite different from Boston’s transit system. There are many more lines and stations. I was extra keen to get on the right train. Once, I got off at the wrong stop in Brooklyn. I planned on going to the famous Juliana’s Pizza near the Brooklyn Bridge. Hoping to arrive at York Street station, I was instead deposited at Borough Hall. I realized that I took the wrong line. Thanks to Google Maps I figured out just where I was and got to the pizza place in time for lunch.

Most importantly, I felt safe being on my own. Like any metropolis, New York has its share of unusual, sketchy characters. But they did not bother me. I never felt like I was in danger. When the trip ended, I would be happy I handled the city by myself. It gave me confidence to travel solo again.

Toronto – 2017

Downtown Toronto Skyline

Two summers ago, I went on my first solo trip by air to Toronto. I then had a friend who always traveled alone. He inspired me to do the same, though my family was concerned about me visiting Canada’s metropolis by myself.

I had not been there before. I was neither acquainted with the city nor did I know anyone there. But I was eager to take the chance. I wanted to see Toronto and its many multicultural districts. I wanted to go up in the gigantic CN Tower. I was fascinated by Chinatown, Little India and Greektown.

On Danforth Avenue I happened onto a large Greek festival. There were street vendors serving Greek food, musicians playing Greek music, and many people dancing along. Napkins danced in the air. I frequented similar festivals in Massachusetts but none of them compared to the one in Toronto. It was bigger and funner!

The CN Tower was neat. It is one of the world’s tallest free-standing structures. From the top I could view a forest of skyscrapers with the vastness of Lake Ontario beyond. I found many of the city’s sights to be equally enjoyable. Casa Loma was the perfect place to learn about Toronto’s history. The Zoo was full of exotic animals, some I had never seen before. Pandas and tree kangaroos? Scratch those off the list!

One of Toronto’s streetcars

Toronto was great though it did have its rough moments. It was frustrating getting off at the wrong subway/streetcar stop twice. I could have gone back on the subway or the streetcar but I did not want to exhaust my supply of tokens. One cost $3.25 CAD ($2.47 USD), which was pricey for just one ride. I also had trouble getting WiFi access at some of the attractions. It made me feel very anxious. Purchasing a SIM card would have been ideal but I did not want to spend the extra money.

Toronto’s Financial District

Despite the hardships I still enjoyed my vacation. Using printed directions from Google Maps was a big help. Toronto’s streetcar system is quite extensive. I used it much of the time. Like New York, handling Toronto helped me become a more resourceful, independent traveler.

The Netherlands – 2018

One year after Toronto, I was off again. My first solo trip overseas would be to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

The Diary of Anne Frank was one of my favorite books as a teenager. So I spent a solemn afternoon at the Anne Frank House. I have always had a passion for 17th century Dutch art. That warranted a visit to the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, an art museum in the Hague.

I found the Netherlands to be the perfect solo travel destination for me. Most Dutch citizens are fluent in English and the trains are punctual and voluminous. Again, my family worried. I was going to Europe all alone. Their doubts (and fears) did not stop me. Once I arrived in Amsterdam, I was virtually vibrating with joy.

Of course, challenges presented themselves. There was an incident where I lost my 4-day iAmsterdam pass. Naturally, I was upset. It cost a lot of money ($100.00). I had to buy a 2-day pass instead. Later, I paid for rides or admissions using cash or my plastic.

One of Amsterdam’s many pedestrian friendly streets.

I used the 2-day pass a lot in the Dutch capital. I had accumulated plentiful directions from Google Maps on exploring Amsterdam. Still, it was hard. Most of the street signs were not visible. Fortunately, some signs pointed in the direction of popular attractions. I also used a map provided by my hotel. It was particularly useful showing pictures of Amsterdam’s sites linked to their locations. Early on, I hesitated using it. Tourists with maps attract pickpockets. Be that as it may, I remained discreet and was not targeted.

Regardless of the challenges, I had a wonderful vacation. I saw every place I wanted to see, stayed at a decent hotel, and ate delectable foods. The trains there were fantastic as well. They all ran on time and were very clean. I took the train to other parts of the country, like the Hague. It was just an hour away from the capital.

Frankly, I was starting to feel lonely during my last night. I began to think it might be nice to travel with a friend or a tour group. I was proud of doing things on my own. But I began to feel like I was missing out on something special. Months later, I decided to go on Intrepid Travel’s ‘Highlights of Spain’ tour in the spring.

Madrid – 2019

Though I toured Spain with a group, there were times I was alone. This was the case in Madrid because I had my own room. I had arrived early in the morning and could not check into my room until 2:00 pm. I killed time by walking around the city, despite getting no sleep on the plane. I had fun exploring a bit. I saw various public squares, the Almudena Cathedral, the Mercado de San Miguel, the Museo del Prado, and Parque del Retiro. Most of them were within walking distance of each other. I also took the convenient Metro to the Prado from Plaza del Sol. You could imagine how tired I was when I finally checked into the hostel. I took a long nap.

The next morning, I resumed solo-sightseeing in the city. After an orientation walk around Madrid, my group and I had our own plans of what we wanted to do there. I saw the Museo Reina Sofia, Parque del Oeste, the Palacio Real, and a flamenco show. Like the day before, it was a triumph.

Of course there were mishaps. A marathon was being run near the Museo Reina Sofia when I visited. So it took me a while to find an uncrowded restaurant nearby. By happy chance, I found one in another part of town.

I used a map to walk around and never got lost. Ordering food in Spanish was pretty easy. I knew basic phrases like “Querría una cerveza por favor” (I would like a beer, please) or “Cuanto cuesta?” (How much?). This aspect of the trip differed from my time in the Netherlands. There, nearly everyone seemed fluent in English. I encountered Madrileños who spoke English but they were few by comparison. Nevertheless, I was able to navigate Madrid with my minimal Spanish. I admit to taking considerable pride in this. Speaking a new language can be a strenuous task.

In conclusion…

Traveling alone shows how far I have come as an independent person. Like most people on the Autism Spectrum, I struggled to be self-reliant. At school, I needed extra help with assignments. It was hard for me to organize essays and understand figurative language. I did not learn to drive right away. I had to rely on friends and family for transport.

Today, I have a driver’s license and my own car. I can also set up travel essays with no assistance. I sometimes need help with editing, but I do more than my share of it. Above all, I have become capable of traveling by myself.

I would like to travel more with friends or with a tour group in the future. I was impressed by how amazing the ‘Highlights of Spain’ tour turned out to be. As we saw Cuenca, Valencia, and then Barcelona, I socialized more with the members of my group. We became friends. I keep in touch with them to this day.

This November, I will be going on a tour of Japan. I look forward to making new connections with my new co-travelers. Even so, there will be times when I am by myself. I will arrive in Tokyo a day early, hoping to get used to the time difference. It takes fourteen hours to fly there from Boston!

My plan is to rest a little, then see some sights before meeting with the group. Of course, I am concerned about overcoming the language barrier and navigating Tokyo. I have begun to practice speaking and reading Japanese but it is definitely harder for me than Spanish. Japanese uses three different alphabets and has less cognates. Tokyo is widely known for its train systems, and they are very complicated. There are several transit lines owned by different companies. I will certainly ‘try’ to remember which train to take and to continue practicing my Japanese. No matter what, I know I will be alright on my first day in Japan.

The Autistic Traveler

Most people do not know that I am on the Autism Spectrum. All my life I have faced numerous challenges. At school I had a hard time making friends, using proper speech and following directions. Gradually, I made great progress when it came to meeting new people and speaking clearly. But some things are still difficult for me: interpreting social cues, processing language, and solving problems.

Martha’s Vineyard, 1997

Autistic people’s brains are wired differently and they tend to become sensitive and anxious when facing problems. They also can struggle with changes in routine. They feel more comfortable doing things in an orderly fashion. Sometimes I get nervous when there is a sudden shift in plans.

Gulfoss, Iceland. I was lucky to get a photo with the rainbow!

In spite of my challenges, however, I have found being autistic has some benefits. I can have strong passions for and great knowledge of a particular subject. I used to be obsessed with the legendary Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Broadway musicals were another area of keen interest. But the one thing that has stuck with me for years is travel.

The Bean, a unique sculpture in Chicago.

I have always enjoyed visiting new places, learning about different cultures, and researching destinations to see in the future. As a child, my family and I often vacationed in New York, Florida, and Martha’s Vineyard. But my love for traveling really began when we visited England and Iceland in 2005. It was my first overseas trip and it went so well it inspired me to see more of the world. I have visited other European countries like Ireland and Portugal, as well as different parts of the United States, from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest.

Hanging with van Gogh!

Samantha Brown’s programs on the Travel Channel greatly influenced me too. Every country she went to fascinated me and her suggestions helped me plan my own holidays. Perhaps I was following her advice when I went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. It was lovely to see so many of his famous works. Of course, I remembered to buy a ticket online in advance to avoid the long lines as Samantha did in her show Passport to Europe. I owe much of the success of my past vacations to her!

The Rijksmuseum and the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign, two of the city’s most photographed spots.

Be that as it may, traveling can be somewhat challenging for me due to my disability. It is especially true when something goes wrong. Last year on my first day in Amsterdam, I accidentally lost a 4-Day pass that gave me free access to the city’s attractions and its various metro systems. I felt angry. I had bought it months in advance for $100 and considered it essential to getting around the city. I worried that my holiday was ruined and it took me a while to come up with a solution. An hour later I calmed down and decided to buy a 2-day pass the next day. I used it many times while exploring the Dutch capital and ended up having a fabulous time. When the pass expired, I simply used money out of my own pocket to pay for public transportation. I did not mind. Moreover, the incident gave me the confidence to better handle problems when traveling in the future.

A gorgeous view of Madrid 🙂

In Madrid this April, I wanted to dine at one of the restaurants close to the Museo Reina Sofia but could not get a table. There was a marathon happening nearby and all the dining establishments in the area were packed. It was a bit frustrating and overwhelming because I was hungry and did not want to wait for a table. I chose instead to look for an uncrowded restaurant. Also, I had planned to see Parque del Oeste later that day, which is in another part of Madrid. I hoped to find a quiet eatery near the park, and so I did. It was a Turkish kebab house with some empty seats, quick service and tasty food. I felt proud of myself. I was able to be spontaneous and not get worked up over a small issue. Abrupt changes in plans are common when traveling, and can be difficult for those on the spectrum. That being said, it is best to come up with alternatives to original vacation plans. They can enable autistic travelers like me to have fun in spite of all. It is not the end of the world if something minor goes wrong.

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Photo Courtesy of Ricardo Cazorla-Harisiadis. This was taken at a fun tapas bar.

Another travel challenge I overcame was traveling with a group. For most of my life I have had difficulty forming new connections. I was pretty wary of going on a full-guided tour. It was not until this year that I took a chance and traveled around Spain with a group. In one of my posts I explained how concerned I was to travel with strangers. I feared I would have trouble socializing with them. Actually, the tour was an awesome experience and I became well acquainted with my fellow group members. We got along very well because we all loved traveling and learning about different cultures. Since ‘Highlights of Spain’ was such an accomplishment for me, I was motivated to go on other full-guided tours. This November I will see Japan. I am extremely excited. I look forward to meeting the people I will be traveling with. Taking a trip with a group shows how far I have come with social interaction.

I sometimes feel I cannot live without travel. My goal in life is to visit every corner of the world, whether it be the Andes, the Serengeti, or the South Pacific. There will always be obstacles but I am sure I can manage them. I have learned from my setbacks on past trips that there is always light at the end of a tunnel. Life is too short to worry about things that can be easily fixed.