I knew almost nothing about Iceland when we landed in Reykjavik on a crisp morning in May. The sun appeared bright and warm outside the plane’s mist-crusted windows, and I could almost feel it rejuvenating my body after London’s wet, miserable weather, had it not been for cheery flight attendant’s announcement; ‘and last but not least, the temperature today in Reykjavik is Iceland. Haha! Or four degrees Celsius!’
Reykjavik reminded me of a town caught in the crossroads of time. Wood-fronted stores and attic-roofed houses gave it a frontier-town kind of charm. But that charm was foiled by her modern, slightly unimaginative promenade dominated by Harpa, a glass-and-metal structure of gigantic proportions. But the real Iceland, we were told by everyone, laid out there. So on our third morning in the country, we rented a 4WD and headed north through the Vesturland — meaning the western lands —.
The empty roads of Vesturland wound through a landscape carpeted in the moldy green of lichen, the charred brown of the hibernating soil and the black and grey of the volcanic rocks. It was a silent, immense country, where the breeze smelled of old moss and awakening grass.
We marveled at flat-topped peaks and waterfalls bursting out of rocks; half icy stalactites and half freezing water. All in all, Icelandic landscape seemed more alien than any other place I had ever been to, as though allowed by the gods of time to take whatever strange shapes and forms it had desired over numerous millennia.
We arrived at Harbour Hostel late in the afternoon. ‘Where are you guys coming from?’ Asked Sam, a Kiwi expat living in Paris, over his steaming bowl of soup. Reykjavik, I answered, not failing to compliment him on his soup’s wonderful aroma. ‘Cheers. Trust me; you need some serious sustenance after driving for eight hours in my car.’ He laughed. “I guess I brought it on myself though, seeing as I rented it from a car rental called Sad Cars!”
The small basement’s air was thick with the homely smell of stews and noodles boiling away on stoves and conversations. There were stories of cars getting bogged down in the black-sand beaches and breaking down in the-middle-of-nowhere roads, of magnificent ice-fields and frozen tents. But the recurrent topic on everyone’s mind, it seemed, were the lights; ‘So did you guys see the auroras last night?’ Asked a Canadian, sucking a noodle greedily through his cracked lips. ‘Man, it’s something!’
‘I bet,’ I said. ‘But no, we haven’t. I thought the aurora season was already over?’
‘That’s what we thought too. But we got lucky I guess. We saw them not far from here actually.’ He looked at his companion for confirmation, who nodded. ‘A campsite around an hour or so north of here.’
I looked at my wristwatch. It was just almost eight. Outside, the sun’s last rays shone with a pale luminance and wouldn’t give way to darkness for another few hours yet. But I had already made up my mind.
‘So you are seriously going to stay up then, eh?’ Asked the Canadians a few hours later, on their way to bed.
‘Yeah. It’s probably the last chance I have to see them.’
‘Well, good luck mate!’
We played card games and drank as the number of people in the basement continued to shrink.
Sam, Max – an Austrian mountain bike enthusiast – and I moved to a table by the window as the sun’s last rays finally vanished around midnight, staring at the darkening sky.
By one in the morning, we had run out of beers and conversations and I could tell Sam had had enough too. He asked us if we were going to stick it out and when I looked at Max, I could see the same doubt in his eyes that had begun to chew away at my resilience too.
‘Yes’ We replied, perhaps sounding more confident than we really were. He wished us luck and went to bed.
At about two in the morning, I stepped out for a cigarette. Instantly, the beast of cold pounced on me, biting and howling as I tried to work my lighter. The sky was a dark navy colour; almost charcoal. But not dark enough, I thought to myself. I heard Max’s footsteps as I took a deep puff on the cigarette, flushing my insides with the fleeting warmth. He stood next to me, with his arms tucked under his armpits, shivering.
‘Nothing?’ He asks, in a tone which quivered with resignation. ‘No. And I don’t think it’s going to get any darker than this tonight.’ We had been told a dark, clear night was a prerequisite for sighting the celestial show.
‘I’m just going to finish this cigarette.’
‘That’s okay. I’ll wait.’
Earlier that night, in a moment of travel epiphany, I had somehow made myself believe that we were meant to be out in that little settlement at that exact time. We were destined to see the lights, and it was going to make for a good story. I had already started writing it in my head. But at that moment, with the yachts at the harbour bobbing in the freezing breeze —the same breeze which brought the clouds rolling and slithering onto the amphitheater of the 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 a few days later. I never managed to see the lights, but I had been happy with what I had seen. I had landed there with no expectations and witnessed a surreal beauty beyond anything words could aptly describe. And with that thought, 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 when the skies would become ablaze with light.