‘What’s the first thing I do after landing in Reykjavik?’ Asked the young bearded Kiwi sitting across the small basement rhetorically. I sipped my Viking beer patiently and waited for the rest of his story. The two Swiss sitting across the room said something to each other over their sandwiches, and gave the Kiwi the thumbs up, like they had already heard his story and loved the part he was getting to.
‘What I do is, I look up this car rental company called Sad Cars, and ask them to give me their cheapest car. The car they gave me was so battered that when the guy handed me the keys and wanted to take some photos of the car’s body and chassis. I told him; look at this car! How much more damage do you think I could do it? He took another look at the car, put his camera back in his pocket and simply said good luck!’
We all laughed. It was an easy laugh, the kind of laughter that comes from being in the cosy basement of a hostel, with a beer in hand and a conversation that flows effortlessly. We were at the Harbour Hostel in Eastern Iceland, a few hundred kilometres north of the Capital city, Reykjavik. The hostel, along with a number of other wooden hotels and restaurants formed the Stykkishólmur settlement, built on the edge of a beautiful harbour by the same name. It was the sort of in-the-middle-of-nowhere place you would crash at for a night after a day of driving along the wind-swept roads of Iceland, which is exactly what we had done. There was a small fridge with a limited stock of local Viking beers in the basement; six lagers, six premium Vikings, and the premium brews were by far the inferior of the two. There was a sheet of paper and a pen next to the fridge. We used it as a sort of makeshift tab, drawing a line on the sheet every time we took a beer from the fridge.
Sam, the Kiwi, had been driving his battered car around Iceland for a while. He had started in Reykjavik, driving anti-clockwise, following a roughly circular path which took him along the coastline all the way around the island. Along the way, he met the Swiss couple which were pretty much following the same path. It seemed like renting a car and a self-drive was a popular itinerary in Iceland. And I was not surprised; the scenery was simply magnificent and the drive truly rewarding, if treacherous at times. That’s how the seven of us -I had left Reykjavik with my travel companion and two other backpackers that morning- found ourselves scattered around the homely basement. The foundation was built of stones up to waist height. The rest of the seemed to have been whitewashed at some point in time, but it had stained and aged along with years’ worth of conversations of the many passing travellers.
There were few other people staying at the hostel; two Canadians, another Swiss, an Australian and a solitary Japanese lad. The Canadian duo joined us in the basement and those who had been on the road a bit longer than the others, as it is the custom with travellers, began sharing their stories and experiences with us. It is a habit amongst travellers used in equal measures to usurp the room’s respect and to give others free advice out of goodwill. There were stories of cars getting bogged down in the black sand beaches and of cars breaking down hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement. But the one question that everyone asked and answered was whether they had seen the Northern Lights. That’s how the two Canadians, over their steaming bowls of noodles sucked greedily through hungry lips, told us about how they had seen the Lights only a few nights ago; out in the middle of nowhere with no light pollution, where the nights were still night-like.
And so I decided to stay up and try my luck at seeing the lights. It almost felt pre-planned. I had somehow ended up in Iceland, at the very end of the Northern Light season. I was miles from the nearest town, the skies seemed clear, and someone had seen the lights recently not far from where we were. I told myself, this was my chance. I was exhausted after a day of driving, but I told myself I was going to stay up and stave off the exhaustion. Why wouldn’t I? I was here. And I was going to give it a go.
I knew almost nothing about Iceland when I landed in Reykjavik airport on a crisp spring morning. The sun appeared bright and warm outside the plane’s misty window glass. I could almost feel it embracing my cramped body after enduring the miserable, wet London weather for days. And I was ready to believe the lie, that Iceland could indeed be warmer than I thought, had it not been for the cheery flight attendant’s announcement; ‘and last but not least, the temperature today in Reykjavik is Iceland. Haha! Or four degrees Celsius!’
Looking out the windows of the almost empty bus we caught outside the airport _which was taking us into downtown Reykjavik_ the views were like nothing I had ever seen before; a rugged landscape of volcanic rocks and rectangular, flat-topped mountains in the distance. Once in the city, we checked into Reykjavik Downtown Hostel. It proudly advertised a rooftop bar, with amazing views of the city harbour. And they hadn’t lied; the views of the harbour and the nearby mountains were truly charming. The hostel was located on one of the downtown’s main streets, which was packed full of wooden-front shops and the sort of buildings which you would expect to find in a gold-rush town in the turn of the last century. Except that they had been renovated, and were bursting with the latest hipster fashion trends and high-end products. I liked that street straight away.
Being in a new country stimulates a feeling like no other. That is why many of us travel. But being in a country which I have not planned for and know very little about, in turn, heightens that feeling to a whole new level. It is almost intoxicating; a mixture of awe, confusion and caution which puts all your senses on high alert, making you take in so much more than you normally would in your everyday life. That’s how I felt sitting on that rooftop bar. The suns rays were fighting it out with an icy breeze on my face’s skin. But that hadn’t deterred a young, jubilant crowd of locals coming to the rooftop bar for their afterwork drinks. Attempting to gain an understanding of their country, I approached them, shook hands with everyone and asked them to describe Iceland in one word for me. I got The Northern lights very early on, followed by answers like Immense, beautiful and nature. Then someone answered with Approachable people and suddenly, I felt a sensation of being amongst the people of a small town at the far ends of the world, on the frontier of the cold unknown world.
I knew I wanted to see Iceland’s immensity, its beauty. So I went and found a few people who had the same ideas. The next morning, we awoke early, rented a 4WD, and took the highway out of city heading north. In an area marked on the map as Vesturland _which literally means the western lands_, the breeze blowing off the immense plains felt clean, raw, unviolated. And it was cold. It was a variety of cold I had never felt the likes of before. It pounced and howled, physically assaulted you, its fingers always on the move, probing for that smallest gap in clothing and the unprotected skin underneath.
But the landscape more than made up for the brutality of the cold. All around us, the earth laid in a frozen stupor, incredibly carefree, allowed by the hand of time to take whatever strange shapes and forms it had desired over the millions of years. The air smelled of old moss and awakening grass. The empty road unravelled before us through a land carpeted in shades of colours and shadows, all entwined, merging and blending; the dry yellow-brown of the short grass, the smoked brown of the hibernating soil, the black and grey of the volcanic rocks. It was a silent, immense country, and I found its immensity crushing. I like my moments of solitude, peaceful pondering away from the demands of life. But in Vesturland, the sense of being alone was so imminent that it made me yearn for company.
We drove for hours on end. Iceland is 100,250 square kilometres in size, roughly the same size as Portugal. Its population density, however, is a tiny 3 persons per square kilometre, one of the lowest in the world, and similar to that of Australia. And just like Australia, its population distribution is extremely uneven. A disproportionally large percentage of the population reside in Reykjavik and a few other major settlements, leaving the rest of the country sparsely populated. The houses we passed by were built far from one another, quite often without any farm plots or any other obvious reasons behind their choice of location. I saw a house with a front yard and a bike. The bike had been hurriedly dismounted, thrown carelessly on the steps leading up to the front porch. Ordinary house. Except that it was barely a few hundred meters from a roaring river, maybe ten meters wide, maybe fifteen. Late in the morning, we stopped at a petrol station to refuel and grab a coffee. The middle-aged attendant was happily chatting to another woman and a young girl _I presumed them to be her neighbours_. I approached them and sensing that they were happy to answer my questions, I asked them about how the people out here made a living, seeing as there were no farms or any other agricultural activities taking place. ‘A lot of them are summer vacation houses. People only use them in the warmer months of the year. And a lot of them, live out here but go to the nearby towns for work.’ She replied like it was the most normal thing in the world. And perhaps in their world, it was.
But the people seemed to appreciate their land. They knew it was cold and brutal, a small country with big challenges. But this was a land which had made its people fall in love with it. Visiting the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, a public sign drew my attention. The text on it told the story of a man and a woman in love, not with one another, but with their land; a man who called the mighty Gullfoss his friend. In 1907, an English businessman planned to harness the power of the waterfall to generate electricity. Tomas Tomasson, a landowner in the area, refused the offer, claiming he didn’t want anyone to sell his friend. He believed other people ought to be able to enjoy the magnificent views to which he awoke every day. The waterfall, nonetheless, was leased to a foreign power-plant company. Tomas’ daughter, Sigríôur’s, took up where the old man had left off and continued the campaign of defiance that his father had begun, making numerous trips to the Parliament in Reykjavik, a long distance away over plains of ice and rock, to pledge her cause. Despite her best efforts, her case was rejected by the Court. The proposed power plant was never realised, with the government eventually terminating the foreign investors’ lease on the waterfall due to non-receipt of payments. In light of Sigríôur’s heroic efforts, she would later come to be known as Iceland’s first environmental activist.
And 108 years later, I saw the waterfall, and thought of the old farmer and his daughter, and mentally thanked them for saving their friend. That story made me wonder, if the kids in that house next to the roaring river, would grow up calling that river their friend too?
We wished each other luck in the sincere way which I sometimes think only travellers wish it. Max’s cousin left shortly after too. We played card games as the drape of night descended slowly around us, hushing all noises. By the time the sun had finally set completely, it was midnight, and everyone but me, Max and Sam had retired to bed. By 12:30, we were out of beers and conversation topics. At one o’clock, Sam too had had his fill. He asked us if we were going to stick it out and stay up until two. I looked at Max, and I could see the same doubt in his eyes that had began to cloud my resilience too. But we stayed up.
Thinking that a cigarette might help pass the time, I reached for my pack of Marlboro Red in my trench coat’s inside pocket. It was ten past one in the morning. I pulled my fur hat all the way over down my forehead, opened the basement door and stepped out. The glass panels on the door were painted with a thin layer of frozen mist. The sky had a deep navy colour. No, darker even; a dark charcoal. But not dark enough, I thought to myself. The beast of cold rose from its hiding place and pounces on me, clawing and probing as I tried to work my lighter and light up a cigarette. I heard Max’s footsteps as I took a deep puff on the cigarette, flushing my insides with the fleeting warmth. He stood, with his arms tucked under his armpits, shivering, a few steps away.
‘Nothing?’ I heard him ask, in a tone which quivered with resignation, yet was not defeated. I thought of Hemingway’s famous quote; that a man can be destroyed, but not defeated.
‘Nah, nothing’ I said, turning back to check at the empty, half-lit theatre of the sky behind him. ‘It’s not dark enough, and it’s already past one. I don’t think it is going to get any darker than this tonight.’ He nodded, and just stood there. I exhaled slowly, and suddenly it occurred to me that I didn’t mind it all that much. I had stayed up all night, almost believing that I would see the lights. Earlier that night, in a moment of epiphany, I had somehow believed that I was meant to be there then, destined to see the lights that night. ‘It was going to make for a good story’ I had thought to myself, and I already had it all written and typed up in my head. But just then, with the yachts rocking gently in the midnight breeze, the breeze which brought the clouds rolling and slithering onto the expanse of sky, burying our last hopes of witnessing the lights, it occurred to me that the ending for my story had to change.
I left Iceland after eight days. On the way back to the airport, I plugged my headphones in, my mind drifting with Eddie Wedder’s Long Nights, as the grey distant mountains slipped past the long windows of the bus. And I mused over how the nights simply hadn’t been long enough to see The Northern Lights. But I had been happy with what I had and what I hadn’t seen. If the long nights gave birth to the magic of the Northern Lights, then the long days had showed me a dark, moon-esque landscape fighting to burst into life.
So I left it to its epic battle with the elements. And to its people who bore witness to that battle. And I flew back to the tamer lands I had come from; where they knew neither of long days which were colder than night, nor of nights where the skies were ablaze with light.