A photo will capture a wonder in Iceland, but it won’t show that Iceland itself was a wonder; we could have stopped our car anywhere and at least one good photo would have been there. Nature’s improvisations came in a playful rhythm: sudden patches of dandelions (apparently used by locals as a Viagra substitute) and lupine adorned a desolate yet attractive landscape, with stern skies and rugged rocks that would have been great for faking the Moon landing. In impossible places were the ancient stone structure, a bird with a beak of the wrong color, or the carefree sheep, as if a tired artist made a few errant strokes before bed.
The sheep were the most unreasonable, stuck onto sides of vertical walls like scattered cotton balls, or curled for a nap in ditches from which I would have trouble escaping. I was jealous of the views they had as we drove by, imagining them baaing at me with arrogance, as if they owned the entire island. They were haughty creatures who would scuttle away in rapid little steps when we came close. I ate a lot of lamb on this trip, the most memorable of which at the Indian restaurant in Reykjavik which was purportedly ranked as the 2nd “best thing to do in Europe,” beating out the Louvre and only losing to the Eiffel Tower. Later we found out that this was the result of some online survey with 12 total votes. However, the lamb was excellent, with rich, juicy onion slices on the side.
The Comfort Zone
I had a lot of trouble figuring out why I couldn’t say anything interesting about these attractions, but I think I’ve finally got it – they were too close to other people.
Traveling is an inherently greedy activity. Iceland, a land of treasures, enables that vice. There were small treasures: a colorful sleeping pony, an abandoned graveyard, or an assertive flower, scattered generously everywhere we bothered to look. There were large treasures: waterfalls, craters, unnamed lakes, each of which would be daily attractions if the population in a hundred-mile radius were more than a few hundred. I even felt we owned the road, as we would usually be the only car going either way, and stopping on the middle of the highway to take pictures was (arguably) a reasonable thing to do. Spoiled by everything else in Iceland, how could I feel the same freedom and control with these “big attractions” near Reykjavik? The number of other tourists near these wonders meant I couldn’t selfishly claim my genuinely great experiences with them, from the intense pleasure of the Blue Lagoon to the humbling view in front of Gulfoss, as my own.
The gravel road leading towards Myrdalsjokull was a winding, curvy tease; the glacier would sporadically poke out, shiny like a beacon in the moody sky, but then hide behind the hills with each new sharp turn. The only view we had from the “parking lot” (i.e. a flat space surrounded by rocks) at the end of the road were mounds of black ash, residue from thousands of years of Icelandic volcanoes volcano-ing. I looked for the highest walkable point and begun to climb. Of course at the end of that was just another black hill, so I’d take another round. An unreasonable amount of time later, I was there. It was eerie and unreal because a second earlier I was just staring at the side of a hill. The wind was still and I shivered. It was not cold. I stared down at a gigantic army of black, jagged colossi, behind whom were clearer ice, heading off an onyx trail into the distant mist.
Alejandro and I were on the top of the hill, and Joel and Greta were under a steep incline at our feet. Real men don’t go backwards, so instead of backtracking we decided to climb down the incline. Real men are also pretty stupid, as my first foothold, a rock that was noncommittally inserted into the soft wall, fell off and rolled a hundred feet below. Now I couldn’t go back, so I tried to take a step down — and my body immediately began to slide, burning my hands grasping at the wall. I was only able to stop when I dug my entire feet and my fingers into the sand. It would have been fun to have taken up Kat’s offer of a crash-course in climbing, but for now I only had time to focus on letting my legs do the work instead of my arms, hugging the wall (but still sliding, like one of those old cartoons). Alejandro made it down slowly, pointing out potential footholds and offering his inexhaustible moral support. I slid from stone to stone with his help, changing footholds to handholds, occasionally improvising a rough sideways crawl with triceps and calves. About halfway there, I looked down, only to see Greta on the phone and Joel taking pictures. Thanking God for such considerate friends, I positioned myself so that if I did slip and roll I would take them out with me. There was a lot of black sand in my socks that I had to shake out once I got to the bottom.
“What? I knew you were going to be okay.”
On that day, there was a lone seal in Jokulsarlon; it humored us with occasional dives, which I was entranced by until half of the giant iceberg on my left just broke. It played two beats: horizontal, boxy cracks simultaneously blinked into existence; one long second of suspense later, the iceberg split beautifully and decisively with a crackle like muted thunder. The weaker piece floundered and spun so that its naked bottom half, a lucid crystal unlike its ash-smeared tip, floated to the top. The crowed oohed. The seal didn’t care. A curious duck turned when the waves from the rupture went under it. The torn limb of ice floated towards some brethren who formed a huddled phalanx at the mouth of the river. Eventually, they too will drift out to sea and then melt into obscurity.
[a smaller piece breaking and then catching on the said phalanx (curtesy of Alejandro)]
The glacier is retreating and must eventually disappear. I wondered how many more centuries would pass before there would be no more Jokulsarlon. By then, this place would just be a blue lake, but probably still beautiful, giving its visitors a calm measure of peace.
I’ve always had a curiosity to figure out certain things that are cool to me and nobody else. This was probably the same itch that made me hopeless with girls for most of high school, but I really had to count the number of sides on those basalt columns that looked way too damn regular. The upper road was off-limits that day, so I hopped from stone to stone, thinking myself some Asian version of the Beverly Hills Ninja. I ended up triumphant under the waterfall, only to hear angry French behind me. I turned and realized two people were taking pictures and waving their hands unhappily, so I ducked under the nearest rock to give them space. There was nothing to do there besides being taken in by the fullness of the mist, which rushed at my face and penetrated my shirt, and counting the number of sides on the columns. They were mostly six-sided, with an odd five or even four, a looming set of beautiful yet imposing teeth ready to swallow me.
Somewhere behind me, the woman was complaining to Joel that I violated her rights to take pictures of the falls. To that woman, whomever you are, I really do hope that you got some good, Yan-free pictures, though I wouldn’t have minded if you got just a couple with me sticking my head out behind the rocks. Knowing my goofy face, I’m sure it will be amusing for someone reading your album! =)
Kex (coincidentally, Tynan, a blogger I respect, also recently enjoyed a stay there during a one-week trip similar to mine, though I think his ended right when mine began) was our hostel in Reykjavik and our last stop before the flight. Kex was hip. One of the first things Joel said when he entered was “this hostel is cooler than me,” and I for once agreed with him. Relaxing after my trip, I would frequently just sit on the patio and sketch, sipping a glass of Viking beer whose only redeeming quality is its name.
It was my final midnight in Iceland, and in the lounge I started talking with a trio of Finnish recent-graduates about Facebook and travel. The oldest giggled the most but was the most mature: “you don’t want to travel with BFFs. You want to travel with complementary people.” I was impressed, first at the proliferation of “BFF,” and second at the realization of how varied my group was – we spent the entire drive back from Hvoll trying to find a single song that we could all sing. I didn’t know any Beatles, Joel didn’t know any song from this century (except Umbrella), but Greta wins (?) for not knowing any Disney nor the Sound of Music. Also, Alejandro isn’t the only one to blame; the Americans couldn’t figure out the Star-Spangled Banner. I wondered what being American meant.
I was not sleepy after the Finns left, so I ended up chilling with a Brooklyn girl interested in writing, and minutes after, a Norwegian interested in the Brooklyn girl. We talked about pickpockets in Oslo, about what manliness meant, about what it must be like to come here in the winter when, instead of getting nearly 24 hours of sun, we get entire days of darkness. I was still wondering what being American meant, so we started talking about that too. The Brooklynite thought for a while and gave an honest answer: “I think we Americans are not very good at anything, so we make it up by being cool, and then we attract pretty good people at everything.”
Epilogue – an Ode to the Icelanders
As for Icelanders? I searched my memories and only found respect. To me, the Icelanders themselves are probably the greatest treasures of Iceland; they are few, fiercely proud (especially of their “baby mountains”), defiantly beautiful, but most of all, still here. They’ve managed to be extremely functional and frequently workaholic, in one of the most uncompromising places on Earth. The locals I’ve chatted up all looked at me with bemusement (mostly at my flip-flops) but no condescension, through intelligent, curious, and haunting whitish-blue eyes.
“Is that an Icelandic malt beverage? Yeah? Do you have something like that where you come from? I really like it – I hope everyone in the world can enjoy it!”
“I hope you… enjoy… our country. You are welcome here.”
“Hi, I’ll be your tour guide today. I’m a Valkyrie.”
When we were in an outdoor pool, a middle schooler swam up to us, started a water fight, and decided to speak English with us for as long as possible. His teeth were in transition; his eyes were focused. He knew what a “conference” was. He said “fight” instead of “play” as in “…and we had to fight France in the handball championships!” He frequently had to break conversation to splash water at his sister, “she’s always following me around and copying me. I hope she grows up one day.” After a brief struggle, he got “tectonic plates” from Joel and explained that Iceland has a lot of earthquake trouble “… because we are on two tectonic plates… but Japan has it worse! They have three!”
-Yan (w/ thanks to Joel, Greta, and Nan for pictures)