Unnur María Máney, a historian, circus performer, and teacher, spoke to Guide to Iceland Now about her accidental travels in Mexico and how they changed her life.

“When the financial collapse happened in 2008, I was planning a visit to Mexico. At that time, I had been working on a project for the National Library—today that project is known as the Oral History Centre. When we lost our funding in the crash, my job was cut down to 50% after more than three years of tireless work. The year before that, I’d had a difficult divorce. I felt wiped out.

But I felt free to make drastic changes. So I changed my two-months’ vacation into an I’m quitting. And I left Iceland.

After four weeks in Mexico, I decided to move into a couchsurfing house, where I met a girl who suggested we hitchhike to Oaxaca beach. On the way, we fell in with a gang of street performers—mostly from Chihuahua and Argentina—at a toll station. They snuck us onto the bus and we travelled among our fellow hippies.

Now, at that point, I was a musician and an athlete, not a performer. But on the beaches, I was a very good “lady with the hat”—I chatted people up and got them to give us money—because I was able to present our show in English, French, and German.

From then on, we moved around the country performing in the streets, in plazas, in restaurants, on beaches. We’d strike up a deal with restaurant owners to perform. Soon, I ended up learning the djembe drums and playing on the drum team.

Sometimes I would cut flowers and aeroplanes out of aluminium cans to trade. If I wasn’t able to get a ride, I would settle for sleeping behind a gas station. I took joy in it because I was free.

Being free—going to Mexico from Iceland—meant living hand to mouth. And when you live hand to mouth, you always live in the instant. And that’s what I needed for a few years; to live in the instant and to stop worrying about the decades of future that lay ahead.

I found my other home on top of a mountain range in the Chihuahua desert. My village was half in ruins, half-populated. You had to go through a silver mining tunnel to get there.  

And I was joyous. I had my base there for two years, though I would continue travelling around the country with other performers. And I learned tricks along the way—I learned silks by dangling from a tree without a safety mat and I’d spend weeks at a time in the desert. I could have conversations with my anxiety instead of being afraid of it.

My heart is torn between Iceland and the desert. Since I returned, my project has been to implement that attitude of happiness within the constraints of Icelandic society.

Right now, I’m studying social circus in Berlin with an international association of circus companies; it’s the antithesis of working for an event company because we’re focused on dispensing technique and knowhow and the joy of circus for the greater benefit of society—and I love being able to give back the joy that the international circus community has gifted me.”

People of Iceland is a series curated by our Editorial Staff to tell the stories of normal Icelanders who have done extraordinary things (even on a small scale) to bring about positive change in the world.