Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Nature’s Classroom

An unedited version of my story published in the Nov-Dec 2017 edition of asiaSpa India.

I should have been distressed, but I wasn’t. I should have moped, but I didn’t. I continued sipping my hot chocolate as though nothing had happened, staring expectantly through the foggy window for signs of that magical swoosh of green, the Aurora Borealis. Worried about my lack of reaction to the news, my husband proceeded to console me by saying that he was hopeful about the storm not setting in the next day. I cheerfully told him that we should turn back as advised, halfway into our road-trip around Iceland - the trip I had meticulously planned, the trip that was all I could talk and dream about since six months, the trip that was so expensive that I felt pangs of guilt in spite of having painstakingly saved up for it.

That night, we were the only guests at a cosy wooden inn at Breiddalsvik, a small fishing town in Iceland’s craggy East Fjords. For that matter, in the week we had spent driving from Reykjavik - Iceland’s capital - to Breiddalsvik, we had been the only guests everywhere. I am not exaggerating for effect – we were literally the only two people on the road at most times, barring at Reykjavik, home to almost half of Iceland’s minuscule population. In October, at the onset of winter, the weather in Iceland is at its most tempestuous. So when the locals at Breiddalsvik told us that a ‘don’t travel for a few days’ warning had just been issued because of a storm brewing all along our route, we knew it was prudent to turn back. That was a huge blow, but why wasn’t I upset? The answer surprised me.

Stormy weather in October

Shorn of creature comforts like luxury accommodation, local cuisine (being a vegetarian limited me) and ‘branded’ shopping, which sometimes tend to define a travel experience, Iceland had helped me discover what was important to me. I learnt to live in the moment, without a plan - quite a challenge for someone who likes to be on top of things. My definition of well-being changed; I realised that feeling alive and happy could result from just a consciousness of the world, my surroundings, and its wonders, including undesirable ones like the impending storm.

A week ago, a day after I arrived in Iceland, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula welcomed me with howling wind that rattled our parked SUV like a cradle. Overcome by fear, I sat clutching the car door until my knuckles hurt. Our guide had already descended to the bottom of the hillock, and gesticulated wildly, beckoning me to join him. Mustering up all my courage, I stepped out into the 25 mps (90 kmph) wind, the warning for which blinked on the digital display by the roadside, and had prompted us to stop driving until it subsided. I quickly wobbled down the slope. There, sheltered from the wind by the rocky drop, I gaped at the deceptively tranquil sight before me: Kirkjufell, with its small cascading waterfalls. 

The hill Kirkjufell, with the waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss in the foreground.  

As the adrenaline coursing through me slowly mellowed, and my heart ceased to thump wildly, I wondered whether the threat of danger made one feel alive. The epiphany came yet another day, when I walked the slippery slopes of a glacier, with crampons strapped on, every step calculated and purposeful, avoiding crevasses and thin ice. In spite of the intense concentration, my mind registered both the sheer expanse of the glacier as well as the delicacy of the lace-like patterns on patches of frozen ice. Yes, the threat of danger had indeed made me pay closer attention to my every movement, and details of the landscape, which may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

The summit of the glacier Svinafellsjokull.

Iceland took me out of my comfort zone, challenged me to rely on cues given by nature, and reinforced my belief in goodness. A fairly egalitarian society; the refusal to have an army; the rental company asking me to leave my car with its doors unlocked and the keys inside so that they could pick it up; museums refusing to charge us for our second visit because they said they noticed how much time we spent appreciating each exhibit - through large doses of pragmatism and visual poetry, Iceland reassured me that a lot is well with the world.

Bobbing in the hypnotic blue water of the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa, images from the road-trip flashed before my eyes. Geysers, bubbling soil, volcanoes, lava fields, craters, glaciers, icebergs, auroras, and fjords - phenomena that had merely been words, were now memories. To be in the lagoon’s warm water while the land around was in winter’s grip was a surreal experience. Slathering some mineral-rich mud on my face, I floated to the bar for a drink, happy that driving back had given us more time to spend at the same places, as well as a chance to meet those who had waved us goodbye days earlier. Our promise of returning another day had come true, albeit sooner than expected.

A day before I left Iceland, I stood on the viewing deck of Perlan, an erstwhile water tank in Reykjavik converted into a public building. The blue ray of light from the Imagine Peace Tower - John Lennon’s memorial – shot up into the night sky, with a full moon for a neighbour. Below twinkled Reykjavik’s lights, as though all the stars had fallen down from the sky. And then, unexpectedly, two green beams emerged from the moon and snaked across the inky canvas. The Aurora Borealis is rarely seen unless the sky is clear and dark, yet here it was, defying convention. The unbridled joy in that moment was a fitting culmination to what had been constantly reinforced throughout my trip to Iceland: “Allow yourself to be surprised.”

The Aurora Borealis (northern lights) over Reykjavik. The blue 'Imagine Peace' light, conceptualised by John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, is lit every night from his birthday in October until the day he was shot in December.