26 March 2010

hot views

By now I'm sure everyone's heard of the latest excitement to reach us here on the island. The volcano at Fimmvörduháls has even been covered by the revered news service at Fox to the delight and amuseument of most people here.

So yesterday when the weather was clear and spring-like, S and I skipped out of the office early to see what we could see. At Hvolsvöllur we turned on to route 216, following a string of Jeeps making their way into the river valley. Blithely ignoring the several "road closed" signs, we followed the road through two river crossings and through increasingly bumpy and muddy terrain until we found friends J & D who'd come earlier to hike.

On the way in, our first indication of excitement ahead was a massive plume of smoke drifting gently seawards. The closer we got, the more clearly we could see the individual belches of smoke that dissolved as the expanded skyward and floated over the glacier. Even closer, the lava spurts became clearly visible, the tongues leaping high in the air from the left side of the newly-forming mountain.

We'd hoped to cross the mighty Markarfljót but in its springtime fury and with a rather light vehicle that might have floated in the fast water, we stayed on the far side and just walked across the tundra until we reached the river's edge. We settled on a bluff above the river, about 7km away from the explosion's center, and unpacked the goodies. J & D, experienced and efficient nature travellers, had come with crispbread, cream cheese, avocado, and tabasco, so we layered up some sandwiches and picnicked as we watched.

The location is already known for being tremendously beautiful, a long river valley edged by mountains and topped with glaciers, opening south-westward towards the sea and the setting sun. With only a gentle breeze and the full sun on our sides, the addition of these fireworks was almost too much to handle. We passed the binoculars along our line, watching the lava as it shot skyward, then solidified and tumbled down to the newly forming mountain. We watched the dozens of small planes, the helicopters as they circled. We inspected the tires and size of the vehicles that did make it across the river, and counted the people who'd hiked to the top of a nearer mountain for a close view. We tried to describe the effect of the lava- was it more like a blow torch, a snowgun at a mountain resort shooting off something quite the opposite temperature?

Mostly we just stared and tried to take at least some photos that would capture how remarkable the sight was, grateful to be here to bear witness to such a phenomenon. As dusk began to fall and the sunset lit up the smoke plume pinkly, we decided we simply had to stay long enough to experience the colours in the dark, so we waited and watched, observing that the plumes of lava seemed to be spreading. When we first arrived, only the left side had been visibly active, but in the dark the whole ridge was alight, burning above us like a Lord of the Rings signal fire.

Finally, just before total darkness, we trekked back across the jumbled landscape and to the cars again, wary of crossing rivers in total darkness. We shouldn't have worried though- the entire route back was well illuminated by the hundreds of people who'd come out to see the scene. The crowds and vehicles were reminiscent of some fourth of july fireworks spectacle, except in puffy coats and hats instead of light summer dresses. After we crossed back over the first river crossing, the crowds became even deeper- tour busses with little footstools set out for the comfort of the tourists, dozens of cars not river-worthy, and hordes of people marching through the tundra. Mania of such a proportion I have never witnessed in such a relatively remote area.

And then, the 2 hour drive back in the dark, during which I kept looking back to see just how long the eruption would be visible. Past Hella, I could still see back for kilometers, the bright orange plume rising high above the low, flat lights of the few farms we passed. At Selfoss it was finally swallowed by the dark night and all seemed finished. But then, as we passed through the snow-striped heath at Hellisheiði, a pale arc of northern lights swept through the sky. Perfectly ended.

01 March 2010

not done yet

Over the past few months there's been some serious Iceland-or-not debate going on here, and for a while I thought I might be leaving the country. And yet, I'm still here and plan to stay for a while. Based on the world media and the currency and the dirty politicianing it might seem like the last place someone would choose to stay, particularly since I arrived here by following someone else's dream of living here.

And yet, over the past nearly-five years, it's somehow become my own place. Living in a foreign country with a fairly obscure language and sometimes a mysteriously different culture can be frustrating at times but there's just so much here that's impossible to find in one place anywhere else. Most of these are the sorts of things that don't cost money. For example, during my time here I've worked in three different offices, and each one has had sweeping views of mountains and bay. It's not possible to gawk at the view constantly during the work day but whenever I'm eating lunch on the Fridays when the rescue squads are practicing in the harbor, or look up while I'm on the phone to the cloud-spotted Esja, it's a spark of wonderful in my day.

At home, I can open the window on clear winter nights and take photos of the Northern Lights directly from my kitchen, resting the camera on the windowsill. Whenever it's stuffy, an open window brings a swirl of that only-in-Iceland air that's the first signal that I'm back when I arrive at the airport. It's that tap water I always miss when I'm in places like Paris, some of the most grungy-tasting water I've ever had in a major city.

On my way to work I often take the "long way", a 10 minute trip instead of 8 to my office. I wait at a stop light opposite a dry dock where I can watch the comings and goings of boat needing maintenance, then continue along a seaside road with the same huge view I enjoy all day at work. When I run, it's along similar paths where the wind is a near-constant training partner, but where the music of my run is the surf, accompanied by what might be some of the best sunrises and sunsets in the world.

A few Saturdays ago, I joined a sixsome on a trip whose goal was to hunt for hot pots and soak in as many of them as possible. Our first stop was a place I'd visited back in the autumn of 06 and hadn't been able to find again afterwards. A small shed offers basic changing room comforts, including a heated floor. From there, two different pots offer soaking options, or you can lie in a shallow pool where the water spills over and admire the view of the protected valley. It was a day when the sun finally felt like it had returned after the long darkness, so I lay for as long as possible in the gravelly pool with my toes turned to the sky. This is a good way to spend the weekend.

Then, let's not forget the people I've gotten to know here and who enrich the experience immeasurably. I've gotten lucky with a work environment that provides freedom, inspiration, and a trustworthy group of people who've been great companions on so many trips to Norway, Holland, and the UK. There are the Icelandic friends who've included me into their local traditions, festivities, and families, the cheerful choristers who've given so much Icelandic practice and companionship on trips all over the world. Then, there are the friends from other lands I've made here that can commiserate on how odd it can be as a foreigner here. Many of them have moved away but the connections continue as they revisit Iceland or I visit their new homelands.

The future here is definitely a bit unknown and the situation may require reassessment as the battles over IceSave and EU membership resolve, but for the time being I'm soaking up the returning sun and the dazzling view over the turquoise ocean to the snowed mountains. Simple things like that are what make life worthwhile to me.