Going to Iceland for spring break was not my idea, really. My friend, a senior who will soon be a working woman in a tall, mighty tower in New York City, wanted to have one last trip before she committed to a no vacation offer. The location remained undetermined for months. Darjeeling, as advertised by Wes Anderson, was a good candidate considering the mission of the trip, but Reykjavik, as advertised by Icelandair on the T, won the competition with cheaper fares.
I huddled under my blanket on the plane there. The screen in front of me had already started taking me to the geysers, designer stores where I could buy a lopi sweater, and uninhabited areas to look for the Northern Lights. I rested my head on my pillow with an Icelandic lullaby written on it, listening to Sigur Rós. An hour later as I walked to baggage claim, I read the quotes by inspirational ssons and dottirs of Iceland that dotted the walls. One stuck with me throughout the trip: “I feel emotional landscapes; they puzzle me.”
Over espresso and a croissant at a coffee shop that first morning, we went through guides of the city in an attempt to plan the coming five days. The number of attractions I marked on the source sheets matched the number of bars I starred for our four nights in Reykjavik. Reykjavik is home to two-thirds of the less than 300,000 Icelanders, and it looked like we might need to leave the bounds of the small city. The black and white shapes in the horizon sat patiently, waiting for us to realize that a trip to Iceland is not about conquering the stars on a map of Reykjavik.
In my first and only day in the city, I wandered under the puffy clouds, looking at houses that glowed in the grey—the purple one that followed the green, the redroofed blue, the orange. I picked one of the three locations of the Reykjavik Art Museum where an exhibit titled “Cadences of Line and Color” was on view and went in. The most fascinating works were by Icelandic artists whose videos flooded my eyes with shapes and colors, leaving me in a trance as music—sometimes imagined through the rhythmic visual changes, sometimes real compositions by the artists themselves or by their collaborators—played in the background. The exhibit made my decision to go out and to soak in whatever fed these artists under the Icelandic landscapes outside the city. That night, at a bar called Boston, with only one possible allusion to New England adorning its wall (a moose head), we booked two tours that would take us to the wilderness.
The tours emptied our pockets but showed us the real Iceland. Prices were determined by the vehicle you chose to roam the fields: an Icelandic horse—famous for its five gaits and friendliness—a safari jeep, or a bus. We settled for having window dust in our photos—the fewer photos you take, the more your eyes will take in. As we left Reykjavik behind, driving past houses and bigger buildings and facing the lava fields ahead, the black and white patterns surrounded us, and the snow swallowed the bus.
Our tour guide himself was aloof as he narrated the surroundings: “We are passing an education village on your left. Well, it used to be more educational, they say. There are two reasons for this: The teachers are on strike and the students are happy. Yes, the students are very happy. Also, there used to be a housewife school up here for fifty years where they tried to teach our wives how to cook and clean. But after trying for 50 years they quit. Now, we have to teach them.” But neither the stale jokes nor the rotten egg smell could divert me from the landscape. The geysers, the mid-Atlantic ridge, where we could see the two continental plates, and the waterfall were all fascinating, but after every stop I scurried back to the bus, afraid to be blown about by the wind or slip on ice, and hoping to get back on the road to watch the lava fields and mountains in the distance.
On the second day of the tour, we were in the mountains, and I kept losing my balance as I tried to fit my crampons on my hiking boots to venture out to the glaciers between two overdue volcanoes: Hekla and Katla. The ice crushed under my feet and the sharp spines of my crampons stuck in. No matter how aggressive my steps were, the mountain stood still as we walked up and down the hills, climbing its sides. I kept waving my ice pick, trying to insert it a little deeper to pull myself up and finish the climb, but the glacier resisted my blows. I looked up to see where I was hitting, and a chunk of ice fell on my cheekbone. With the rush of blood to my cheek, I realized that it hadn’t occurred to me that the ice was real, that it was a part of the mountain, that the ice was packed meters and meters deep, flowing from the heights of the peak. The mountain’s indifference had given me the illusion that I was free and strong, yet with one blow, I was hanging in the air. Our small group walked in crouched posture as we turned back to the bus, slowly getting whiter and whiter with the snow sticking to our coats. People slept on the way back. In my dream, I drowned in emotional landscapes surrounded by glaciers and lava fields.
As I sipped my coffee on the plane home, I learned a new Icelandic word from my cup: “Strókur: a column of steam rising from a natural hot spring.” I looked around to see other Harvard students who I had spotted on the Northern Lights tour, hunting for Aurora Borealis (which at this time of year are merely faint tilts in the sky that only form beautiful shapes when captured with a camera in 30 second shutter speed), the Blue Lagoon tour, immersing in the hot waters, or the Lebowski bar, drinking the White Russian of their choice. I wondered if they had seen it too, if the mountain talked to them as it did to me. I pondered over the lava fields and how they were going to change once Hekla erupts in a few days as expected. Then, I turned on the “Unique Iceland” documentary, but I had been to most of the sights depicted in it, and I turned it off again with the contentment that I had seen Reykjavik as advertised.