2. September 4, 2021
My Journey to The Faroes
“You too late,” the grisled man in his early sixties said to me as he leaned against a flimsy post on the steep Gásadalur cliffside, casually smoking a cigarette while his tourist fare posed before its famous waterfall.
“Too late in the day?” I asked the cabbie, having read that the best times to see Puffins was 6-10am, and it was only nine.
“Too late in year. Puffin gone. Out to sea,” he said, casually taking a long drag.
But that can’t be, I thought. Agnieska and Nazar, those two wonderful, friendly Berliners I’d met on the bus the day before had shown me pictures of Puffins, taken from this very spot, just two days ago. Agnieska’s smile was so warm and kind she made me feel like we were lifelong friends the moment we met. It was a smile incapable of deception.
“There,” he suddenly said, pointing with the cigarette casually held between two outstretched fingers. “You see black dots in ocean?”
“Puffin,” he said, as if the words he’d spoken just moments before had never left his lips. But right then, to me, the apparent contradiction didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered beyond the fact that I’d done it, Hads, I was looking at goddamn Puffin, and I knew it as certainly as I knew my own name, because a chain-smoking contrarian ornithologist, moonlighting as a cabbie, had just told me so.
Hey, I never said how close I’d get. I never said I had to see those goofy little bastards waddling around the grass at my feet. Someday my famous author friend, Jeff Hull (Pale Morning Done, Broken Field, and more, look for the endearing character of Pud), might get closer, sure, but I’ll always have been first. I’d reached the Faroes, and I’d seen their damn Puffins. Technically, at least, or so I was told by an honest-to-god ornithologist cabbie.
And so that’s my Puffin story, Ernie and Hads, and I hope it finds you both well and amazed and jealous and proud.
I’ve been told you’re settling in just fine with Jason, Rachel and Grayson, although I hear rumblings of a potential spider problem, for which I’m not at all sorry I can’t be there in person.
I arrived in the Faroes a few days before my lifechanging Puffin encounter, having read that the islands “are what Iceland was twenty years ago.” I spent two nights in the capital, Torshavn, which reminded me in spirit of Newport, Rhode Island. It’s the Faroe Islands’ tourist hub, where the very old meets the new, modern, and hip, while at the same time maintaining its quaint charm. It has restaurants and cafes, pubs and nightclubs. There were shops and galleries, all amidst some incredible history, from grass-roofed homes to Tinganes, one of the oldest parliamentary meeting places in the world, where the Faroese general assembly has been gathering since the Viking period.
I walked many hilly miles, into cafes and pubs, stores and galleries, and throughout it all was the only person in possession of a facemask. Children stared as if I were Rocky Dennis, but I soldiered on.
I slept well in Torshavn. The first night, anyway, due to the fact that I AirBnB’d in a top floor, penthouse suite, all white with sweeping views of the town, and a harbor view to boot. I had my choice of three bedrooms, with the bath and kitchen spotless and stocked well for rough-living travelers like me. There was even free coffee and cable tv.
The second night I was relaxing on the couch around 10PM, freshly showered, in boxers and a tee, doing some writing with Meet Mr. Black playing on the big screen television. And that’s about when the Asian family that had also rented the unit arrived. I jumped into some pants and opened the door in time to see myriad faces fading into the dark stairwell, looking just as confused as I. They entered my suite, and just kept coming and coming – there must have been eight or nine of them. Even without me there, taking a full room and bed all to myself, I don’t know where they were all going to sleep.
We exchanged pleasantries and repeated apologies for the clear error of our host. They could not have been more kind. Shortly thereafter, I retreated to my room to email Liv, the owner of this AirBnB, about her unfortunate mixup. Thirty tense minutes later, she responded, “I am here.”
And there lie the problem. Because Liv wasn’t here. Not here, as in, where I was, anyway.
You’ll get a kick out of this, Ernie, ehem…seems that the road, Neils Winterth, just suddenly changes names at an intersection a block or so down, for no apparent reason, without notice, and the house numbers simply start again. So while I was in fact in Unit #9, and while my combination for the key box, 1-1-1-8, did in fact, somehow work, and while this unit was, coincidentally, also an AirBnB, it seems I was, by Faroese rule of law, squatting quite illegally in a very expensive penthouse suite.
Upon realizing my error, I thought of Dad, of course, as I have many times on this trip, and how he would expect me to walk into that once-expansive, beautifully-appointed living room and admit my error like a man to that sea of tired, confused faces, now crammed into it like the below-decks quarters of some old steamer ship. But, truth be told, I didn’t always make Dad proud. So instead, I packed my bag as quickly and quietly as I could, and I scampered down that dark stairwell and out into the night like the common criminal I had become.
My stay on the island of Vagar was spectacular, in a quaint and clean harborside cabin in the town of Miðvágur – a cabin that had a sticky note with my name on the door (thank you, Kristjanshavn and Lucy, sometimes it’s the little things). Its windows looked out onto an equally quaint harbor just twenty-five feet out the door, where I watched fishermen come and go.
From Miðvágur I would take my rental car up and down wooz-inducing hairpin mountainside curves, down barely-one-lane roads with occasional pulloffs to let oncoming traffic pass. I drove through mountains and under seas, through tunnels connecting town to town, island to island. Like Iceland, around every bend was another jaw-dropping scene, and several unplanned, impromptu, one and two hour hikes ensued.
It’s why I never made it to all of the islands, despite the fact you can drive from Torshavn to the farthest point in the Faroes in just two hours time. You could, but you’d pass by everything in between – the quaint little hamlets, the world-renowned surfer destination of Tjørnuvík, the Giant and The Witch, The Nix, the roadside goats, geese, and horses, and had I done so, I might have missed Gjógv, where one day I just might become its fiftieth resident, get myself a few sheep, a horse or two so my nieces will visit, maybe even my very own damn Puffin. I’ll doodle and write, visit the guest lodge for a pint now and then, and of course, send for the two of you.
My last night in the Faroes was possibly the best of my trip so far, guys, though it was simple and short, and didn’t require more than a fifteen-foot walk. It wasn’t amazing vistas and mountaintops, mystical horses or magical lakes. It was what travel-mentor Phil Hess told me was the best part of his own ’round-the world trekking adventure twenty years ago.
And that is the people you meet.
When I returned to my room from driving and hiking hours and islands, tired and ready to relax, I was met at my door by Lucy, the assistant to Kristjanshavn, who owned the property. She was welcoming guests to other cottages. In the doorway next to mine stood Lucasz, a Pole with a presence much larger than his frame, who gave me a hardy hello in a gleefully inebriated Polish accent. He simply stared while Lucy and I finished our business of paying for my stay, and when I walked to my room to unload my bags, Lucasz followed, rapping on my door.
“Hello! Come!” he said, giving me no option but to follow him across the hall.
He pushed his door open with his foot, and there sat Julia, from Germany, and Lucasz’ traveling partner, a fellow Pole, Marta. A bottle of vodka, shot glasses, and wine were on a small table in the middle of the small room, their party well underway.
“Sit!” Lucasz said to me with a beaming smile, giving up what was his chair for a seat on the bottom bunk.
Three shots of vodka later, we had all shared stories of what brought us to this room, in Ytra Bryggja 3, in Miðvágur, on the island of Vagar.
Julia is traveling solo, like me, and is here to celebrate her birthday. Also like me, she came for the Puffins. She would try to board a boat to Mykines, she said, and would succeed, sending me photos in Aberdeen of her sitting on the grassy island, a smile ear to ear, as very real and true Puffins waddled nearby. She was ecstatic.
Lucasz and Marta have been traveling the world together for five years, interrupted only a handful of times, most recently due to the pandemic. They are trying to become the first people to circumnavigate every continent by motorcycle. They’re well on their way. They both had invaluable advice for my future travels, and told me they have friends everywhere, should I ever need a helping hand. I also have a place to stay at their home in Poland, should I ever make it there. This from people who had known me less than an hour. In return, I offered the same, should they ever make it to New England.
Friends for just minutes. Friends for life.
I just might get used to this.