smallish fingers curled softly wrapping silk as she slept.
Drifts and rolls of undulate slumbers
under haloed day-like night sky
In Iceland’s Elliðaárdalur valley near Reykjavik,
closed elven eyes.
Kristjana’s dream, a whimsical flight on puffin wings,
his tuxedo plumage beating speed orange-red beak
sonar soared homing swift to Atlantic shores hastening.
Over reindeer, mink, rabbits and foxes asleep under sassafras,
over gnarly birch trees they’d fly. To save sailor’s lives,
tell them “stay in”, a storm approaches.
Descends midst seaman yowling, throwing ropes,
growling on trawler, spitting out.
Off briny moss rocks the anchor rises,
chains clinkety-clink, ebbs rippling flappers.
Seafarers fineries fisherman of northern lights,
pointed Atlantic outward, for open seas.
For a full-net catch of cod, haddock and pollock.
Never heard her elf warnings, seaman hearing rich cat-calls only.
Nudges puffin’s forehead, Kristjana flight grips puffin in preparation.
Storms billigerent waves, turned em’ sideways, mast cracked, as ship sank deep.
Tears trickled Kristjana’s cheek, as a puffin feather lightly tickled and woke her from her sleep.
The weeks passed, the winter hung over me with cold mornings and dark nights. Daily visits to Mum were spent caring and organising, social work discussions, medical conversations, occupational therapy assessments and keeping life going in as normal way as possible. Returning home at night I was always met with cheery conversation from our temporary lodgers, fire on in the lounge and welcome food prepared and shared. There was so much uncertainty, so much reliance on me, I angsted over what the future would be. Making use of the unexpected time at home I met up with many friends and family and enjoyed their company for walks, coffees, lunches and dinners. Mum grew a little stronger each day though her diagnoses were worrying. A stroke, a fractured spine and blood cancer, but still she battled on, though she looked each year of her ninety lived. It was difficult pressing the social services for the care she deserved and was entitled to, I had to develop a thick skin and state I was not living here currently but in Italy, to move her up the list because as long as I was caring for her, they would not put her care package in place. I recalled the tough times my parents must have had with my brother with special needs, when they could no longer care for him at home and how hard it must have been to get the right care for him. They had sheltered much of this difficult time from me though I was aware of the stresses they were under. Dark times indeed.
Back from our Italian road trip, the next few days aboard were short and busy. We couldn’t get a flight back home until Boxing day and as our eldest son and his wife were happy to use our home to host Christmas for Granny too, we decided to book ourselves a Christmas away and found a last minute deal in a converted abbey in norther Sicily near Cefalu. We packed our bags, closed up the boat and drove to the north coast enjoying the internal Sicilian landscape as we passed. I stared nonchalantly out the window of our hired Fiat, as we sped along the motorway until I noticed a huge plume of grey smoke, towering high in the sky, from the west.
“Hmm don’t think that’s a cloud” I said “Maybe Etna has gone up” I joked.
It had, a new eruption from a side fissure had released a giant ash cloud high in the sky and we later heard that some areas on the hillside had to be evacuated. Hope our flights home will be ok I thought, recalling the hugely disruptive Islandic eruption some years previously.
Arrival at the Abbey Anastasia was lovely, large monastery on a hillside set within its own vineyards, it was a real treat after basic Airbnb conditions. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were a very different experience from our usual chaotic but traditional family bash at the lodge. No present wrapping, no decoration making, no stocking filling, no cooking but it was lovely to be catered for and we enjoyed it all. Though I did miss family a lot, we had not had a Christmas without at least one of them since before they were born. Luckily flying home on Boxing day was unaffected though we had to take an unusual path on take-off to stay under the ash cloud.
Being home and seeing all the family was great, a late Christmas dinner, half the price courtesy of the reduced Christmas produce was cooked and enjoyed and we relaxed into the usual Christmas routine of day walks then films with cheese and wine nights. All too soon we were packing again, this time with thermal winter gear, sleeping bags and dehydrated food, canny Scots off to Iceland to visit our youngest son who was working there temporarily over his University holidays.
It was yet another ambition realised as I had wanted to visit this fascinating country for a long time and sat excitedly on the Easyjet flight staring out the window at the land fast approaching from the northern Atlantic Ocean, glad I was warm and dry in the cabin rather than sailing there as had been suggested some time previously.
The cold hit us as the we stepped out onto the airplane stairs and we clambered down clutching our cabin bags, stuffed as full as we could get with warm clothes and food. We found our way to the car hire company and stood in front of our 2 seat Renault Kangoo van, with looks of resignation on our faces. When I had asked our son about what to hire, he had suggested this and I was sceptical about his reply when I told him we had actually booked one.
“Ah right, well it’ll be fine – up to a point” I’m not sure exactly where that point was?
“It will be fine” stated the captain as we opened the back doors revealing a double mattress taking up the entire back of the tiny van.
“It has a heater” he smiled at me “More than we had in the tent in Nepal or Patagonia”
Very true I thought, it will be fine.
And indeed, it was, we definitely felt like middle aged teenagers, camping out of our van, just lacking the pumping tunes and empty cans rattling around the foot wells. We drove to the outskirts of Reykjavik finding an empty car park right by the coast and feeling it was out the way enough, parked up, dressed in as many layers as we could find and walked the 30 minutes into to town to the church square where the firework display was to take place at midnight heralding a new year. However, the fun had already started as soon as it had got dark and fireworks were flying off everywhere! We made it miraculously for 11:45 outside Hallgrimskirkja and joined the huge crowd dressed in bulky layers and as much as sequined accessories as they could find. Within minutes the scene resembled a war zone, the noise and explosions were indiscriminate and I hid behind a stone statue of Leif Erikson, though the expression on his face suggested I am on my own. We survived a couple of hours before wandering our way back, shell shocked, through construction sites and across grey gravelly roads to the car park and clambered into the van, diesel heater on. We settled down for the rest of the night, stars over head and peace ,save the occasional bang of a distant rocket, until a short while later we were woken abruptly by the van being rocked and loud shouting.
“Oh God we are being attacked by Vikings “I exclaimed.
The captain mustered up bold and brave actions and then said “Ignore them and they’ll go away”
Well they did eventually, after consuming copious cans of, very expensive, lager, much arguing between themselves and swearing in Icelandic then hugs and apologies and promises to be friends forever, they leapt into cars and sped off finally leaving us in peace.
Light peeping through the rudimentary curtains of the van heralded morning and I pulled them apart expecting the same empty car park to find it was full and there were people wandering around wrapped in towels and wearing fancy dress. Iceland was indeed a strange place! It turned out we had parked in the carpark of Reykjavik University and New Year’s day brought the dookers same as our home tradition, although these swimmers were extreme, walking barefoot through the snow and into the Arctic Sea! Only the geothermal pools conveniently situated further up the beach gave their antics any form of sanity.
We were completely unprepared for this week in this land of ice and fire, it was a snatched opportunity wedged into our sailing voyage and allowed us to spend time with our youngest while visiting this fascinating island, taking advantage of our son’s knowledge of the place we were not sure we’d get a chance like this again. I had previous students gain work placements with adventure companies here and indeed had now been given permanent jobs in this rapidly expanding adventure tourist industry, so I hoped to visit them too. We had flown over with our son’s girlfriend and her sister who had rented a small cabin near his base and we arranged to meet up in a day’s time when he had some time off too. He had messaged us with some recommendations, as had a colleague who had spent a lot of time guiding and photographing this beautiful landscape, so we followed their advice and soon found ourselves in an unique geographical area, amazed to see the contrasts of black volcanic rock next to white snow, white foam capped seas surging over black ash beaches and herds of stocky hairy ponies, their backs turned to the incessant winds. I was enthralled. We parked up in a dirt carpark at the foot of snowy covered hills and decided to take a night hike up to some geothermal pools we had been told about. It was simply beautiful walking up the track, dressed warmly, clear skies overhead and stillness all around. The walk was to take around two hours however as it wound higher up, the path became icy and after a few slips we decided the better of it and returned to the van, planning to return with proper gear next time. Passing literally boiling pools on the way down, looming out of the fog reaffirmed our decision.
The next day we were to rendezvous at the glacier guides base to meet our son and the girls and head to the glacier to be guided on a walk there. It was a fabulous and poignant day spent with our youngest, it was so pleasing to see him grown, mature and knowledgeable with skills and confidence gained over a year working there previously. Still the same humorous kid though with a wide trusting smile, long legs scarred at the ankle from adventures in South America and that wink he gives me with a flick of his fingers that crack me up every time. Spending time with my sons is the greatest pleasure I have in life and I pledged to do more of this once back. I was slightly nervous clambering through the gullies formed by the ice in the glacier, climbing up steps cut by the guides that morning and marvelling at the blueness of the ice, tiny bubbles caught under the surface like a Caithness glass paperweight. Streaks of black captured in the ice, ash from previous volcanic eruptions, prisms of refracted colours rainbowed when struck by an axe releasing the pressure and distorting the light. As a geographer I was delighted to see these processes at work right in front of my eyes, to touch this ancient ice, to hear the tumbling of rock from a newly scoured face, to feel the smooth face of the glacier as it melts, all too quickly, at the edge creating an icy lagoon, the one my son had plunged into on new years day. The bravery or folly of youth but I couldn’t help admire his vitality. This had been a special day and as we put away the crampons and ice axes I felt privileged to have explored this beautiful place with him.
That evening was spent at the guides’ base and my former student had cooked up a banquet of a meal for us which we enjoyed along with the rest of the team. It was a delightful evening of camaraderie and stories, sharing tales of travels, adventure, family and confessions from my students of their times at college with me as their tutor. I loved these young people, so much energy, enthusiasm, dreams shining from their faces, experiences waiting to come, ambitions some they will not realise but many I hope they will. Loving this year off as I was, I still was looking forward to returning to my job as I love the immersion in this time of these students lives and I gain just as much from them as I hope they do from me. The fact that my two younger sons have made friends for life with some of my students too, by working in the same industry, is a bonus. I thought of my eldest too, now an experienced and valued geologist, leading a team and using his skills and knowledge gained through his university course and perhaps also from his time spent in the Arctic on a four month expedition on the ice in Svalbard. It all seemed connected and meant to be.
The following days were packed with mini adventures, walks in pouring rain to huge waterfalls, wanders up steep sided gorges, drives to the coast to watch the huge Atlantic swells break on the stark coastline. We returned to the “hot river” location, this time armed with crampons and made it successfully to the high corrie where the river sources and is heated to a pleasant bath temperature. It was surreal lying in the shallows in our swimmies, snow and ice all around and seeing our bare foot prints in the snow on the banks as we climbed out. We visited the “Diamond Beach” which was beautiful and witnessed a proposal, apparently a common event but none the less lovely, it was being filmed by an enthusiastic Japanese friend so I hope she said yes!
Van parked up in remote places, peeping out the curtains at night in the hope of seeing the Aurora but it was very cloudy and it eluded us. It was a great plan to bring our own food as it was so expensive and we cooked on the little stove every night, it was fun and definitely a contrast to living on the boat. We found amazing locations just off the tourist trail and saw the edge of the ice sheet pouring over the mountains tops and glaciers coming down to a dammed lake, icebergs strewn at its foot.
Our youngest and his girlfriend made a lovely and welcomed gesture by booking us into a bed and breakfast for a night, taking pity on the old dears in a camper van i think, and we had a lovely night with a couple of missionaries living in a small village. The ex-Scot wife made us waffles for breakfast and we scooped Skyr on top with strawberry jam grown that previous season in the ubiquitous polytunnels heated and UV lit, by geothermally generated electricity. We had interesting chats on what brought them to Iceland, although she was a nurse and he an engineer, it was their faith that brought them north. They were kind people, J realised he had left his walking boots at the glacier base and she insisted her husband would collect them on his way home from work.
“Its nothing, its what we island folk do, help each other out” A lovely sentiment and interesting sense of identification as this “island” though only half the land mass of the British Isles, might have more to do with the amount of people living there, just over 300,000 compared to our 67 million.
The final day we had parked up in an empty carpark on a high tundra plateau in the middle of nowhere but within one of the many National Parks, the northern light forecast was fair so we were hopeful. It was bitterly cold night and we heated up the rest of the waffles, accompanied by some Drambuie to warm us and settled down for the night. We kept parting the curtains in the vain attempt to see a display but nothing so we gave up, and pulled 4 layers over us.
Not long after I was aware of an engine noise and we decided it was snow plough clearing the roads until it seemed to stop next to us. I could hear muffled voices very close and was conscious of bodies brushing against the outside of the van. I peeped out the front window to see what I could only describe as zombies! Dark shapes, hoods pulled up over heads, blue glow casting weird shadows over faces and stumbling gaits as they lumbered around the snow outside.
Then we saw it, three huge coaches “Aurora Watch Tours” blazened across their sides and as our eyes adjusted, we made out a huge crowd of tourists milling around the car park and nearby field, their tour guide giving instructions how to set up their cameras to capture the lights. Oh well if you can’t beat them, join them, so we dressed and clambered out, the captain with his camera and tripod in hand. It took a while for our vision to be able to see the sky properly and right enough we could make out a green swath across the northern sky above a distant mountain ridge. It did indeed come and go and move though it was not the National Geographic magazine style vibrant display, it was definitely the northern lights and we saw “the dance”. We stayed out after the crowds had gone, their allotted time up and watched a little more just ourselves. Another dream realised.
This land held me in awe, captive by its stark landscape, new land forming, old land eroding. It seemed so ancient in many respects, land of Vikings, land of old traditions, fishing, whaling, livings scrapped out of barren land, constantly swept by the winds from the Atlantic. Yet new, new invaders, seeking new experiences, some would say raping and pillaging. Coach after coach load of international tourists, cameras clicking, phones flashing. They pour out of their warm vehicles with velvety covered seats, dressed like they were going to a pop concert into an austere landscape, teeter along steep sided gorges, muddy slippery paths at the edge of cliffs, boiling pools of water right beside the trails and ice towering over them, moving, creaking. Yet they seemed oblivious to the reality of it, like it was an Arctic theme park. Like somehow they were protected from it. I heard a tragic story of some lads on a stag weekend, senses dulled a little by alcohol presumably, who coming across the geothermal pools heated to over boiling point, a cauldron of bubbling steaming water, one guy jumped in, encouraged by his “friends”. Why? We heard more stories from the guides of many accidents, even deaths that are not reported, so as not to discourage the stream of tourists taking advantage of cheap European budget flights only 2 hours from the UK and free stop overs for USA visitors. This was a whole new situation, one that my more learned colleagues at the school of adventure studies were concerned with and were involved in researching along with their students who were undertaking expeditions and research into this emergent destination. Hopefully some answers could be found and there was evidence of the government trying to address this. A small sign, showing the temperature of the water, was erected beside the boiling pools and a rope cordoned it off from the path.
I have seen his type of behaviour from tourists before though, as a guide, of almost leaving their common sense behind on the plane seat along with the inflight magazine and empty coffee cup. Care, thought, responsibility, decision making was handed over to me entirely. Tell me when to get up, what to eat, what to wear, when to stop for a break, where to step, where to put my hand. I remember one guest on leaving a week long trip, look at me with dismay as we bid our farewells.
“Who’s going to tell me what to do now?” he almost cried.
I understood it, many of these guests are high functioning business people, highly paid, busy lives, time tabled, scheduled, arranged then they take some precious time off and they can’t really do it themselves so they hand themselves over to “the guide” and ask them truly to “guide” them. This seemed to be a little of what was happening here. Tour companies cashing in on this constant supply of revenue, whisked these people away from the airport and guided them through the landscape, informing, educating, enthralling and directing them to the roadside garages, cafes and hotels, all owned by the same tour company. It seemed fit to burst though, it was almost tangible in the cold Arctic air. It hit me when back home in Oban going about some business in town I called into the bank for some sort of transaction and the friendly young teller did her usual customer relation chat about holidays and what I was up to for the weekend and it transpired she was off to Iceland for the weekend.
“Ah nice” I said “Why are you going there?” It seems an unusual destination for a weekend break.
“Flight from Edinburgh Friday night, £60 return, then on Saturday me and my pals have booked on a tour, “Arctic in 24 hours”, we get to walk on ice, get mud baths in the Blue Lagoon, see the Northern lights while drinking vodka and eating reindeer burgers!”
I can’t judge, I went as a tourist and we can’t hold ourselves as any more virtuous than any other visitor however I hoped we had left little trace, respected the land we visited and came back with a deeper understanding and reflection on a situation that seems untenable. My own son had taken up employment there as a guide on the glaciers, he had made good money, worked very hard and seen things he did not respect, did not admire and was one of the reasons he had chosen to go on to university to study Environmental Geography and Outdoor Education in an attempt to understand it more and hopefully do something positive to address this. Now that I admired.
We climbed aboard the airplane with a bumpy take off due to the strong northern winds, climbing high in the sky and I kept my eyes on the horizon as the sun went down in the hope of seeing the Aurora one more time. I had heard of a flight recently where the engaging pilot had alerted his passengers to the Aurora displaying beautifully for ages at one side of the plane then he had to ask them to take their seats again as they were causing the plane to tip as all were pressing their noses against one side taking in this spectacle. Don’t you just love people.
And that’s just it, I do love people. As a teenager going through that impossible task of deciding what to do on leaving school, I decided I wanted to be an anthropologist. My career adviser had to ask me what that was and what job would I get with it. I had answered calmly that I wanted to live with the Inuit and study how they live. I was told to consider nursing.
Well I did study anthropology for two years at university but had to make a choice for the final years and chose geography to major in, no regrets but I still like to dabble in the study of people. We are fascinating.
We landed in a slightly warmer Edinburgh and while we waited for my sister in law to collect us, I called my mum to check in.
“Hi, I’m back, how you doing?”
“Not so good pet” And so began the two months of trauma, a tense and stressful time but one which ended well and brought new friends and caring people. A delightful girl, living just down the road joined our team and took on Mum as a home help. Family all helped out and supported both of us.
No leaving her on an ice flow as in Inuit tradition, her carer sent me a picture of her, hair done, lipstick on, silk scarf round neck, smiling as she lunched with a friend in the spring sunshine.
The adventure continues.