The story of Iceland is the story of life, notes Payal Singh Mohanka after a recent journey to that fascinating land.
It’s a country where you see the Creator at play with his canvas. His masterstrokes conjuring an awe-inspiring collage of shapes, forms and colours.
Untouched and unspoiled, the scenic splendour of Iceland’s ever-changing landscape unfurls before your eyes, taking you to almost the edge of the universe.
A cosmic orchestra plays as you soak in the gushing waterfalls, the rugged coastline dotted with fjords, sparkling glaciers, volcanic mountains, sculpted rocks on lava fields, black sand beaches, grasslands and the famed Blue Lagoon.
Discovered by the Vikings who came in the late ninth century from Norway after halting their boats in Scotland where they abducted women and it is believed slaves from Ireland. These early settlers found fjords filled with ice and gave this land its name.
The offshore Gulf Stream provides relief to what is one of the northernmost inhabited places on the planet, making the weather milder than the country’s name suggests.
The Icelander has a strong European connect yet fiercely protects his identity. One of the world’s most sparsely populated countries, its 377,000 inhabitants still speak Icelandic, the old Viking language.
The 12th century saw a number of books being written and by the 15th century the Bible was translated into Icelandic, a very descriptive language with 32 letters and complicated grammar. This helped to preserve the language.
Icelanders have a rich tradition of story-telling and have been brought up on a diet of Viking sagas that recount heroic episodes and stories of voyages, migration to Iceland and feuds between Icelandic families. They publish more books per capita than any other nation in the world.
Interestingly, there is no family name concept in Iceland. A local, Dagur Ingason, explains, “I am the son of Inga, my father’s first name. So Ingason is my surname. My daughter is Arny Dagurdottir, daughter of Dagur. Wives don’t take their husband’s name, they retain their father’s name. This helps us to keep track of our family tree.”
Being a very small country, there is a database of genealogy records available and Icelanders can log in and check how they are related not if they are related! “Usually it goes 7 or 8 generations back. In fact we have an app that allows young people on a date to check if they are closely related,” he adds with a chuckle.
Much to a visitor’s amazement, it is a land where fairy tales, mythical creatures like elves and trolls still exist.
An Icelander explains their respect for nature and their beliefs. “When we build roads in Iceland sometimes we come across rocks where elves are living. We have to go and ask the elves for permission to make a road.”
As my jaw drops, he continues, “It happened at this hotel.
“During the construction of the adjoining building, one of the big machines which was being used to remove the lava rocks kept breaking down.
“No one could understand why this was happening. The machine was 100% fine.
“The breakdown was happening at the same spot each time.
“They eventually found there was an elf rock there.
“They had to get a woman who speaks to elves.
“She came and asked the elves for permission to build the road and if they could be moved to another home.”
Permission was granted and construction of one of Iceland’s finest hotels was completed.
I am speechless for a moment tilI I realise I come from India, a land where no construction happens without a bhoomi pooja (a prayer to Mother Earth) and Lord Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, is invoked before embarking on any major endeavour.
Surely the elves in Iceland too can inspire faith and belief: Disturbing an ‘elf home’ or building without permission brings bad luck and asking for forgiveness can appease elves.
We are told when you walk through a lava field in the twilight, you could see all kinds of creatures looming around.
When asked about these mythical creatures, our guide Omar Sigurdsson says, “Well who knows, maybe. Our senses are so limited. It is like looking into the world through the keyhole of a door.
“Who knows what else is there?
“We study science, we should be sceptical, but we love these stories.
“They are an integral part of our cultural heritage.”
In Iceland for thirteen days before Christmas, children put a shoe outside the window. If they go to bed early and behave well, they get a small gift or candy, if they don’t, they get a rotten potato in the shoe.
“Even today we use trolls to discipline our children,” says a resident with a laugh.
“And thirteen days after Christmas, bonfires are lit in every town.
“We have 13 Santa Clauses and they are basically trolls. We dress up as old, scary trolls sometime 6 metres tall.
“We have these heavy costumes and the troll army runs around scaring children who have not learnt how to behave.
“This ensures good behaviour.”
According to Icelandic myths, trolls return to the mountains while it is still dark. If the trolls see daylight, they turn to rocks!
In sharp contrast to the country’s rugged and sometimes intimidating terrain with active volcanoes is the fact that it is a very peaceful country without an army, air force or navy and a very low crime rate.
One of the happiest nations in the world, Iceland figures high on human indices like freedom and gender equality. Different denominations of Christianity co-exist.
As a local explains, “Nature here is cold, dark and harsh for several months. We have built this spirit where everyone is friendly and willing to give a hand.”
Two-thirds of Iceland’s population lives in the capital city Reykjavik, which translates to ‘Smoky Bay’, named after the steam rising from the geo-thermal hot springs.
A walking tour through the quaint streets of this charming city takes you to its landmarks like Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland, Parliament House, a statue of Ingolfur Arnarson, the first person to settle here.
It was in 1944 that Iceland got its independence from Denmark.
Even now Danish is a compulsory subject in school, much to the woe of school children who complain about the tough pronunciation, “It’s as though we are talking with a hot potato stuck in our throat!”
After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, Iceland was one of the countries that faced a devastating financial meltdown. For two years it grappled with a complete breakdown of its banking system.
A volcanic eruption in 2010 changed the country’s fortunes. Close to 100,000 flights were canceled all over Europe. Warnings had come in advance so there was no damage. All of a sudden this little island at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans found itself re-discovered.
Since 2011 the tourism industry has been growing exponentially with droves of tourists coming from the US itself.
Heavily dependant on imports, Iceland is an expensive country as weather conditions do not permit them to grow much of their requirement. However, the sheer scenic splendour of this magical island and the warmth of its inhabitants continues to attract visitors.
As we drive along the South Coast, we stop at Vik, a seafront town. With restaurants and guest houses mushrooming, the town is now seeing an influx of immigrants from eastern European countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Romania and Albania.
The landscape is diverse with its awe-inspiring waterfalls, Skogafoss and the most spectacular, the Seljalandsfoss Waterfalls where we walked behind the waterfall and encircled it.
Despite the treacherous rocky track, a truly mesmerising experience. We head to the Dyrholaey lighthouse, an island of volcanic origin, well-known for its scenic view.
The haunting beauty of the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach leaves us spellbound. Endless stretches of black volcanic ash, the waves frothing at the edges of the shore as sculpted rocks emerge from the sea and stand as mute witnesses.
Referring to Icelandic myths, our guide says with a twinkle in his eye, “These are trolls that turned to rock once the sun came out.”
Children in Iceland think beaches are black as most of the beaches they have visited are covered with volcanic ash.
The Icelander takes in his stride the kaleidoscope of shifting moods: the constant teasing of the sun, the wind and the rain. Without a complaint they accept whatever comes their way.
As a resident points out, “There is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. If you don’t like the weather just wait five minutes, it will change.
“If we let the weather stop us, we Icelanders might end up doing nothing. We are optimistic, flexible, problem solvers.”
The weather certainly doesn’t hold them back as we see the success of the tomato harvest at the Fridheimar Greenhouse. Despite a long dark winter, a ton of tomatoes are harvested each day.
Geo-thermal water, nature’s gift to this region, heats the greenhouse. “No matter what is happening outside, we can keep it nice and warm inside,” explains the supervisor as he shares with pride the nurturing offered to 27,000 tomato plants in this large greenhouse.
The magic of Aurora Borealis, or what is commonly referred to as the Northern Lights, casts a spell even on those who live here.
Usually the best time is between October to late March. While we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of this celestial phenomenon as green light streaked the night sky, Icelanders remember the stunning view they had five years ago.
It was late January. The forecast was very promising. The sky was clear, there were no clouds. The Town Hall had asked for the lights to be switched off. It was an hour-long visual rhapsody: Dancing lights slithered across the sky like snakes.
A myriad colours: red, blue, purple, yellow and green lit up the sky.
“Last year’s volcanic eruption was a sight to behold,” says our guide.
Red molten lava poured out for six months. “It was in the middle of nowhere so there was no damage to man or property. My daughter and I hiked to marvel at this phenomenal vision.”
Aptly described as the land of fire and ice, Iceland is located on top of the mid-Atlantic Ridge and therefore has over 130 active and inactive volcanoes. Almost every four years there is a volcanic eruption.
With advanced technology, tremors can be recorded and warnings issued before an eruption. As a result in the last 230 years in Iceland there has been no loss of life due to an eruption.
The Golden Circle route takes us to the spectacular 55 metre deep Kerid Volcanic Crater, the Strokkur Geyser which erupts and shoots up 25 metres every four to eight minutes, the Gullfoss Falls, one of the country’s almost 10,000 waterfalls and a UNESCO world heritage site, the Thingvellir National Park.
It was here that the Vikings established the first Parliament in the world in 930 AD. Today, the Icelandic flag flies proudly as a quiet reminder.
The National Park is also of huge significance as it is here that you can walk between the two tectonic plates, one on the edge of North America, the other on the edge of Europe. This is the only site where the plates are visible above sea level.
Iceland has a wide range of activities to offer: Dolphin and whale watching and adventure sports like snowmobiling on the Langjokull glacier and a ride through rugged landscape on an all terrain vehicle at Reykjanes Peninsula.
Thirty minutes from the capital city is the Raufarholshellir Lava Tunnel, a natural conduit formed by a volcanic eruption. The tunnel takes you down 32 metres and you walk along the path created by the flowing lava over 5,000 years ago.
Apart from tourism, it is the fishing industry and the selling of geo-thermal power to the aluminium factories set up by American companies that contribute to Iceland’s economy.
Geo-thermal water provides electricity and 96% of all energy in Iceland is green, renewable energy.
It is the natural geo-thermal water from 2000 metres below the earth that triggered the creation of one of Iceland’s biggest attractions, the Blue Lagoon.
Rich in minerals and silica, its curative properties are believed to heal skin ailments. A leisurely dip in its warm waters is a therapeutic ritual for visitors.
A recent addition to the must-do list for tourists is the stunning 3D simulation, Fly Over Iceland. You miss a few heartbeats as you soar over snow-capped glaciers, manoeuvring your way between steep rocks and cascade down waterfalls, with the spray on your face.
The initial trepidation makes way for a feeling of liberation as you become one with the glorious landscape.
The story of Iceland is the story of life. The Icelander’s mantra is the philosophy of a resilient people: ‘Thetta reddast — It will be okay.’ People persevere and find joy. A quiet strength in the face of adversity. Life goes on. It must. Even after the coldest winter, spring returns.
A salute to their indomitable spirit.
In the words of Icelandic Nobel Prize-winning author Halldor Laxness, ‘Towns folk have no concept of the peace that Mother Nature bestows….the countryman on the other hand walks into an atmosphere clear and pure, and as he breathes it into his lungs some unknown power streams through his limbs, invigorating body and soul.’
I leave the country with a friend’s words echoing in my ears, :Iceland changes you forever.”
Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/Rediff.com
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