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Displaying items by tag: Searching for Eyjafjallajökull

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Searching for Eyjafjallajökull

When the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010 in Southeast Iceland, for days I imagined, from my home in the scorching summer plains of Texas, walking directly toward the volcano and holding my hand out as close to a lava waterfall as possible. Literally, I pictured myself on a hike with boots laced up to my knees and a walking stick by my side, guiding me like a holy grail towards the flows. Scorching wet matter from the earth would roll down the sensual side of mountains like fingers traipsing down the inner curve of a woman’s back. Precipitation of reds and crimsons and charcoaled oranges would sit in the sky, coating the water and blanketing the land and electricity would light the clouded firmament above the crater. This was the vision I had of the volcanic disturbance in Iceland and one that my wanderlusting ego simply had to witness.

Serendipitously, my husband and I had tickets in our hands for a one-week trip to Iceland a few short months in the future. Hanging up our platitudinous itineraries of historical exploration and cultural excavation of museums and architecture, we had decided, long before the eruption, that this year we would pick up crampons and ice picks and hiking boots instead. The “Land of Fire and Ice” would no longer be a checklist in our long queue of international destinations. And we were ready to convert our metropolitan expedition into natural appreciation and terrestrial gratitude.

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So, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, it seemed ideal. Mother Nature was telling us that we were making the right decision – our vacation destination was suddenly the focal point of millions of minds, eyes, and news lenses. From the moment the media began reporting ash clouds wafting over the entire northern Atlantic, we sat at home impatiently, waiting to learn about our pending voyage. All reports were quickly in: we would still be able to travel to Iceland, but perhaps might not be able to return. 

As someone who has traveled widely and lived in flood-wrenched New Orleans, tornado-scathed Texas, earthquake-rich southern California, rainy Costa Rican jungles, and even rainier London streets, I never thought a natural disaster would impede my travels, but it did and our trip was delayed two months.

By the time we finally stepped foot in Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull’s fiery tongue had already stopped salivating. No waterfalls of lava would cross my camera lens and no lightning bolts would climb from its crater. Gimmicky t-shirts and mugs in shops on every corner would be as close as I would come.

The minute we landed in Reykjavik, a bustling capitol where 60% of the small population resides, we began planning, selecting an activity for each of our days, which would ultimately revolve around the pilgrimage to the infamous volcano.

Day One was devoted to the culinary conquest, an adventure that didn’t truly begin until we walked into the Sunday Market at Laugardalur.

“Try some shark!” a woman called out to me.

I don’t eat fish, I said to myself, before offering my hand in the affirmative.

She handed me a toothpick with a square of white meat stabbed at its tip like a cube of cheddar. Our greatest predator was not kind to my taste buds.  However, I was impressed with the flavor of whale when I bit into my very first whaleburger. A purple chewy meat, almost sponge-like in its consistency, it tasted very much like steak. Icelanders pride themselves on their maritime cuisine, notably pleasuring tourists with adaptations of whale in between a bun or on the finest of China.

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Over the next five days, we exercised every muscle in our aching bodies, exploring Iceland’s exquisite terrain. We climbed upon Viking horses, galloping throughout the outskirts of Reykjavik, welcoming the drizzle of unexpected rainfall. These Viking horses are a unique breed to the island nation, resembling anything but their nominal ancestors. Better known as Icelandic Ponies, they are short, fat little powerhouses who can carry up to two times the weight of a normal horse and boast a famous “fifth gait.” With their Mohawk hairstyles, these ponies can walk, trot, canter, pace, and uniquely tölt. We climbed atop these ponies for almost two hours, and by the end of the tour, could have sworn that they were tölting.

After two hours of bouncing on the meaty back of the Viking horse, we dipped our bodies in the milky blue waters of the famous Blue Lagoon, a sulfuric rich hot spring just a few miles from Keflavik Airport on the outskirts of the capitol city. Many visitors open or close their sojourns in Iceland with a swim in the Blue Lagoon due to its proximity to the airport. We, however, still planning each day around a hopeful visit to Eyjafjallajökull, swam in the lagoon the day after we arrived.

After a relaxing two hours in the natural heat of the lagoon, we were ready to come home and prepare for our snowmobiling adventure the following day. We walked into our definitively Scandinavian boutique hotel – clean, organized, possibly designed at IKEA – and we were notified that the conditions were too dangerous on the glacier and that our tour for the following day was canceled. Panic set in as we navigated the map of terrain and activities permitted us in this final week of summer. It soon resided as we booked a trip to drive ATVs over a lava field. It might not have been Eyjafjallajökull, but it was still shaded with the remnants of some volcano – newsworthy or not.

The lava fields, decades old, were blanketed with a sheen of green fuzz. Icelandic moss, plant life that takes nearly a century to grow, covered the dark dirt like freckles – heavy and clustered in some areas, scattered and poignant in others. An old ship, bisected by the ocean hundreds of feet away, lay still within the land as permanent fixtures of the peninsular landscape. All the while, intense winds did everything they could to turn the ATVs on their sides.

Following the windblown ride through the hardened lava, we strolled through the manageable streets of Reykjavik on our way home, glimpsing impressive architecture, including Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran Parish Church standing at 244 feet high. Several feet before it rests a monument in the form of a statute of Leif Erikson, the Norwegian/Icelandic explorer who was the first European thought to have landed in North America. A gift from the United States to Iceland for the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s first parliament, this magnanimous little statue is, sadly, anything but the Statue of Liberty. For a statue in gratitude of self-discovery of our own land, perhaps the United States could have at least come as close as France did when they thanked us for instigating revolutions of independence around the Western World.

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A day later came the Vatnajökull Voyager: a fourteen-hour day, bookended by long bus drives through central Iceland to reach the Virisjolkull glacier. Our tour group divided upon arrival at Vatnajökull National Park, where half of the visitors spent the day traipsing through the greenery, and the other half of us donned ice pics and crampons. Our Scandinavian guide, who could double for Bear Grylls, led us through the virgin terrain with humor, sophistication, and candor both at the country’s struggling economy as well as its significant impact to global climate change.

As we followed this tall glacier hunter up into mountains of ice – where certain death awaited at every turn in the form of bottomless pits called Moulins – this man charmed the land with his skilled hands and playful history. We felt safe and knowledgeable while he opined on the economic crisis impounding his country, proselytized in that he may or may not have believed in global warming, and teased unwitting tourists who traveled all the way to Vatnajökull National Park from Reykjavik only to remain in the park and never step foot on a glacier. “It’s like going to America and not seeing Disneyland!”He said.  Most telling, though, was his signatory subscription of responsibility to an overactive media for slowing down tourists during the most remarkable moment in his life: witnessing the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Just as all Icelandic tourist companies pled during that foggy time, there was truly no problem within Iceland itself. Ash did not waft to Reykjavik and the eruption was contained in a very small, finite portion of the country. Most people were unaffected. Still, although our concern three months earlier was not about our safety in Iceland, but rather our ability to return home to America after the trip concluded, secretly, my reasonable sensibilities tore in half as the guilt poured in. We should not have waited. We should have visited during the eruption. We made a mistake and would never reach our own lava-powered windmill.

DSC 0336Shortly after the glacier hike concluded, we climbed aboard an amphibious boat for a brief ride through the Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon, a small body of water populated by an extended family of blue icebergs. Set against the sun, this vibrant home to the ice age of yore is a luminescent setting that leaves even the seasoned of travelers in awe. Not only have the floating blue icebergs caught the attention of Hollywood, (setting movie after movie in its waters), but they breathe with daily life, ambulating within the water, just like squirming schools of fish. Depending on the intensity of the wind, it’s not unusual to glide through the lagoon with all the icebergs in one place, which is precisely what happened during our visit.

We returned to our hotel, spending the four remorseful hours on the bus, questioning our decision to push back the visit.

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It was halfway through the trip, and although I had dipped into the blue lagoon, driven an all terrain vehicle up the lava fields of the Reykjanes Peninsula, and sunk my rounding molars into whale and shark and lobster, I had still not visited Eyjafjallajökull. It was becoming my own Godot, my invisible pot of gold, the anchor holding down tape to my yellow brick road that never ended. Until the Golden Circle.

Iceland’s seminal tourist attraction, a tripartite of natural wonder, historical significance, and breathtaking views, the Golden Circle is a tour that most travelers visit first, not last, on their voyage to Iceland. Due to pesky weather (“We can never plan for the weather,” a tour guide said, “but at least we can plan for our clothing”), our golden circle came nearly at the end of our trip.

The first stop in this triangular vista was Þingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament Alþingi was founded in the year 930 AD. Notable in this first stop is the overwhelming greenery offset by ancient political establishment. As we walked through the valley, cutout from tall blocks of rock, it felt eerily like we were walking through King Arthur’s court. In reality, we were walking across the mid-Atlantic Ridge, the valley between the North American and Eurasion tectonic plates. And, like almost every other day, it rained. We were prepared this time with proper clothing and protection.

We drove from the park towards the next two stops in the Golden Circle: the geothermal area of Geysir and Strokkur, and the rushing waterfall of Gulfoss, magnanimous in size and musicality. We donned matching outfits and climbed aboard snowmobiles on a different glacier, flat and reminiscent of a lunar landscape. After an hour bouncing atop the concrete ice, circumventing moulins and crevices, observing the solitude and solace that accompanies this type of activity, the volcano that shall remain nameless seemed like a dream of the past. A goal that if reached, perhaps would have supplanted the thrust of the snowmobile across the hardened lunar landscape or the windy ride throughout century-old lava.

We climbed back into our jeep and the rain ended. Our tour guide drove for several miles until he stopped the jeep suddenly, and as if he were as excited as we, turned us all around to witness a double rainbow, from crest to crest, each of the seven determinate colors touching the ground before us. “This is why we can’t avoid the rain,” he said. “Something good always comes from it.”

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We left Iceland without having scaled the dusty shores of Eyjafjallajökull. But for the first time in my over-planned life, the days materialized precisely as they were intended. I had sipped water from a glacial stream, stabbed my cramponed-flexed feet into the ground, slid around the moon, and for what it’s worth, learned how to pronounce the name behind the great volcano that the whole world watched light the globe on fire. Ay-uh-fyat-luh-yoe-kuutl-uh. And for that, I scaled my very own volcano.
© Elizabeth L. Silver

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