Under Odin’s Eye
In the midst of a pandemic, we made a dream come true. With travel regulations eased in Europe over the summer, we managed to sneak in a ten day long road trip to Iceland, a place that has been on my bucket list since about forever.
There is a lot I could say about the wondrous beauty of the place, the breath taking landscape, the incredible natural phenomena. But those ten days in Iceland left an imprint deeper than just that.
Mind you, as far as tourism goes, every day astounded me and I ticked off a plethora of firsts. Sighting whales, puffins and seals. Hiking a volcano, snorkelling between two continents, exploring natural ice-caves, frolicking on moss covered lava fields — each of these experiences left me breathless and for this alone, Iceland might be my favourite place on the planet forever.
This post, however, is not only about that. This is as much about the stillness and the stoicism that Iceland somehow evoked, the thoughts it left with me.
While flying back, I thumbed over my recently purchased copy of ‘Independent People’, where Nobel prize winning author Halldór Laxness stated at one point, ‘here ewes and their lambs have bleated for more than a hundred springs’.
It’s true, nothing much happens in Iceland — aside from volcanoes erupting from time to time. But even in between that ‘nothingness’, a lot managed to sneak up on me.
On this tiny island, where wilderness reigns free, I learned a lot about stillness and about being in the moment.
Often, we would see other travellers running, in a hurry akin to catching the last train home — I would remark on it, wondering out aloud, ‘why is everyone running here, of all places, where the very air begs stillness?’ — ‘Because they need to make the most out of Iceland’, would come the prompt answer. It became a running joke between us, but there was truth to it. Iceland is unlike any other place.
Travelling in Iceland, I often felt a silence that forced me inward. The volatile weather made me wonder if it is perhaps mirroring the uncertainty of life.
Every day left me enthralled by a powerful play between the elements. Ancient, majestic, unknowable. We would drive for miles on desolate roads, engulfed in a fog so thick that we were peering out of our windshields. We would drive on in silence, lost in our thoughts, watching a misty, moody black coast curve and bend through rugged cliffs.
Suddenly, the road would give way to a tunnel. We would cross it, and hallelujah, the sun was shining. The black coast transformed into a sandy beach. With water so blue, for a moment, it seemed as though we were in Spain.
Admist anguished ruins and lone horses, we would drive on. Past towering cliffs. Wrecks from time immemorial. Honking geese, swans flying in formation.
We would see volcanoes on the horizon, yawning crevices, a thunderous landscape that existed for nothing besides itself.
For miles and miles we would go on like that, being forced to perhaps look at life with a set of new eyes.
Here, we were slaves of Nature. Puppets in the hands of the elements, at the mercy of treacherous quick sand, sneaker waves, sulphuric hot pools and volcanoes.
Something about the fragile but majestic terrain inspired a deep respect and awe. The Earth here bleeds red in places, bubbling with lava and suphur. Yet it harbours a rich biodiversity, and is considered a premier spot for sighting various types of flora and fauna.
All the scenery that we drove past, I pocketed as if it were a polaroid to be preserved and later pored over and scrap booked safely.
Ice, glaciers and lagoons. Dirt roads and gravel paths. Lupine fields. Whimsical black coasts. Secret hot springs in between mountains, given away only by the billowing puffs of smoke. Huge basalt columns. Ravines, gorges, majestic waterfalls. Steep canyons. Geysirs erupting with steam, the stench of sulphur all pervasive.
The unique geology and topography orchestrated to a symphony of silence. A greatnesses unbeknownst to the world. Savouring all of this, we went on. Cairns would mark many of the paths we drove past and more still on the trails we walked on.
We would walk much the same way as we drove, marvelling at the smallest of things— paying homage in silence. Wading through the muck, we would walk on. Meeting the pensive gaze of Icelandic horses, in tune with the morose bleating of a wandering flock of sheep.
Often, it seemed to me as though the colours that we saw in Iceland could be seen nowhere else in the world. The sea, for instance, would reveal itself to be all sorts of hues ranging from tropical turquoise to steely grey.
Every once in a while, we would be shadowed by double rainbows — as though the Sky was grinning down at us from ear to ear. It was easy to believe that if a pot of gold indeed awaited, it would only be here, in this land that was Nature’s canvas, with its midnight sun and mighty cascades.
After a while, we grew accustomed to the sound of the waves and the wind in motion. We grew fond of hearing bubbling crooks, the fishing streams and the steaming hiss of the sulphur springs.
As we drove through serpentine roads, long winded and stretching as far as the eye could see, we passed many a tumble down farm and abandoned turf church. The terrain was evocative, I could see how something as epic as the Icelandic sagas could have come out of this mystic land. When thinking of Icelandic lore, I thought of the ‘hidden folk’, and how some people argue that the belief initially began as ‘a sort of primitive environmentalism’.
Protecting the environment would indeed be second nature, growing up here where the land is teeming with wonder. Adding to the need is the surge of toursim in Iceland, leading to nature intersecting with technology in the strangest of ways — such as when we saw a befuddled group of sheep dazed by a drone buzzing above their heads.
Some sights in Iceland made me question the precarious balance between the environment and urban development. One vivid memory is stumbling upon a dead puffin at the centre of a circle of cairns. The scene was arresting and haunting at the same time. A funeral, I thought. Mourning the slow decay of nature, rioting against the cruelty of man.
Another observation was regarding the quintessential balance between traditions and modernity. Part of this came when reading through the plaques at Látrabjarg, one of which detailed how the cliffs used to be a source of sea bird eggs back in the day to the local community — despite serious hazards. Some locals risk their lives and continue the practice, just to keep the skill alive. With these thoughts, we trudged through a rainy ascent amid the din of screeching birds, exploring the natural aviary.
Reading about the etymology of Icelandic waterfalls too piqued my interest. Goðafoss for instance, is said to be so called because people threw Norse idols in there when Christianity was adopted. A land of forgotten gods, I noted. Their only remains in the names of people and places.
This thought was further cemented when we visited the Arctic Henge. We wanted to be on time for the sun set, which in summer is close to midnight. We had enough time to lounge on a lone grass topped hill and stroll on to a beautiful black sanded beach where we were the sole visitors. When there was a nip in the air, we retired to the car, snacking on chocolate cookies and reading. Eventually, we started towards Raufarhöfn, one of Iceland’s remotest corners.
We passed by stretches of nothing while driving. I remember even finding a place to stay that night was difficult, with hotels scarce and over priced. We drove on though, an ‘Iceland is worth it’ mantra powering us through. Right in front of our car, two ravens flew silently against the dusky sky.
It seemed as if we drove forever, out into the wilderness, to see naught but a half-finished formation of stone.
For some reason, the scene brought to mind a requiem. For what, I did not know. Perhaps for a forgotten way of life, for a modernity that ostracises traditions and long standing beliefs.
With that in mind, I read about the Arctic Henge, a project that was concieved to honour ancient pagan beliefs.
I read on and stumbled on something that explained a little bit about famous Norse gods. Odin, I read, was believed to be the god of war, of poetry. And he was believed to have two ravens, Hugin and Mugin, who would fly all around the world and report all that was happening back to him.
Immediately I thought of the two ravens ahead of our car. I imagined them reporting back to Odin, telling him all about two worn out travellers making all sorts of associations with Iceland. I wondered if he would be pleased.
I thought of the moody Icelandic coast that accompanied us through the trip, with all the secrets it must harbour from visitors and inhabitants alike. Perhaps Odin’s thoughts of my musings too, is one among them.