Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ICELAND ~ A LIVING, CHANGING LANDSCAPE

3D map showing glacial zones in Iceland

Emerging from the ocean depths a mere 16 million years ago, Iceland is still a living, constantly changing landscape, with more than 300 volcanoes, 30 of them active.

Its location astride the mid-Atlantic ridge, on the edge of two tectonic plates, gives rise to frequent tremors and makes it less than hospitable for human habitation. Rarely do you find shrubs or trees growing beyond 5 feet, except in urban centers where buildings offer young trees a measure of protection from strong icy winds.

Grass struggling to green on old lava fields in the Þingvellir National Park

While whales, seals, and other marine creatures have inhabited the cold waters of the northernmost latitudes for millennia, the only indigenous land animals found in Iceland are the Arctic fox and reindeer, although Polar bears from Greenland have been known to visit, hitching a ride on ice floes. All other species were imported by early settlers beginning in the 9th century CE. The good news is, no biting insects or poisonous snakes can survive Iceland’s near arctic winters - although huge swarms of harmless midges occasionally darken the air in some areas.

Snowcapped moraine hills and glacial ponds

Given the harsh conditions, it is indeed a wonder that a handful of hardy humans have managed to gain a permanent foothold on this island nearly the size of Great Britain. The population in January 2015 stands at 330,000 – with 260,000 concentrated in and around Reykjavik, the capital, which makes it the most thinly inhabited country in Europe. Yet the United Nation’s 2013 Human Development Index listed Iceland as the 13th most developed nation in the world.

One of hundreds of splendid waterfalls found all over Iceland 

Apart from an unlimited supply of the purest water found anywhere on the planet - icy cold aboveground and boiling hot beneath - the first settlers found resources extremely scarce and confined to specific areas. They shortsightedly wasted no time decimating whatever forest once existed, accelerating soil erosion and reducing arable land to a bare minimum. However, the abundant waters also provided a healthy supply of fish. Norsemen arrived in the middle of the 9th century with horses, cattle and sheep, plus a few basic tools. Driftwood and ship wreckage salvaged from treacherous stretches of the coastline were highly prized and carefully hoarded.


Remains of a stone & timber cottage built against a hillslope with a grass roof

Although the Norwegians claim to be the first settlers (followed by Danes and Swedes), the remains of a few cabins dating back at least a century earlier were subsequently discovered. Nobody knows who built these cabins, though some believe they may have been Scottish or Irish mystics seeking refuge from the Church’s relentless persecution.

A Magickal Mystery Gourmet Tour

Aesthetic lines of the airport terminal
Even before we landed at Keflavik Airport, 45 minutes from Reykjavik, our 3-hour flight from Copenhagen on Icelandic Air yielded some pleasant surprises. The first was the refreshingly aesthetic, unexpected programming of the in-flight entertainment, unlike the usual “inoffensive” mainstream fluff found on most international airlines. Checking out the music channels, I was delighted to discover that the classical offerings included contemporary symphonic works verging on the avant-garde. I watched a low-key Icelandic movie about an introvert schoolteacher and his father’s attempts to reconcile with him; nothing spectacular, just a human story sensitively told, shot on location in the desolate rural region of Iceland. And next to the video screen was a USB port from which to charge my phone. How civilized!

We ordered a ham and cheese baguette and were delighted to find it still hot from the oven, entirely flavorful and wholesome. It was evident that those responsible for feeding the passengers’ stomachs and souls on Icelandic Air were empathetic human beings, not cost-cutting, time-serving corporate minions.


Arrival Hall at Keflavik International Airport
The next surprise was the pinewood flooring and human-scale layout of the airport terminal which gave one the impression of arriving at somebody’s home, rather than some impersonal transport hub. Imagine my joy when I suddenly found myself at the exit, having encountered no immigration or customs check. This was the first time I have ever arrived in a country seemingly devoid of distrust and bureaucratic paranoia. There were no security personnel or CCTVs in sight.


View of Reykjavik from The Pearl

Interior of the Dome at The Pearl
We were amused to hear that the last bank robbery in Reykjavik was foiled when the police found the would-be robber standing at the nearest bus stop, hoping to make his getaway on public transport. He was totally drunk, of course.

Ragna Bachmann Egilsdóttir was assigned as our personal guide in Iceland. We couldn’t have asked for a more knowledgeable and passionate person to facilitate a condensed but intimate glimpse into the Icelandic mythos. A 34th generation descendant of the first wave of Viking settlers, Ragna has spent 25 years of her colorful life living and working abroad; indeed, a book has been written about her adventures (which regrettably we didn’t have the opportunity to investigate). Apart from that she happens to be natural-born mystic, folklorist, storyteller, ascensionist and healer whose profound love of her homeland is matched only by her interest in whatever goes on beyond the visible. For me it felt like a reunion of old souls right from the start.


Left: Ragna's magickal soapstone. Right: my Logo of Logos inspired by the Merkaba

Ragna Bachmann Egilsdóttir,
magickal tour guide & storyteller
At one point she showed me a carved soapstone she had found on the black sand beach of Mýrdalssandur in 2012. It was a Celtic pentagram, symbol of the Pythagoreans, and it was complementary to my own modified merkaba (based on the interlocking equilateral triangles commonly known as the Star of David). The five-pointed pentagram is associated with Venus, magick, and the Sacred Feminine; while the six-pointed star represents esoteric knowledge and the Masculine Principle. Both are integral components of the Flower of Life, a firm understanding of which leads inevitably to a comprehensive, inclusive and coherent perspective on reality.

On our second day in Iceland, Ragna presented me with two paperbacks – one on the Sagas and Myths of the Northmen and the other an English translation of Voluspa (The Prophecy of the Vikings). I reciprocated by giving her a copy of my book, Tanah Tujuh ~ Close Encounters with the Temuan Mythos.

Captain Palli taking a break
Our driver Guðni Palli Birgis Brettingz (Palli for short) left most of the talking to Ragna who told me he used to be captain of a merchant ship. We soon grew to trust Captain Palli’s skillful handling of the Mercedes mini-bus on treacherous hilly stretches in North Iceland, some completely covered with snow and ice. Most of the time, the sight of another vehicle every 15 or 20 minutes was all the traffic we saw.

Where Fire Meets Ice

Driving across mile after mile of lava fields in South Iceland we learn that a catastrophic volcanic eruption in June 1783 went on for more than eight months and left a whole portion of the island (an area roughly the size of Singapore) uninhabitable. For many years afterwards the air was murky with ash and nothing would grow in the sunless haze. A quarter of the population died of starvation and many Icelanders migrated to Canada, Denmark, Germany, wherever work could be found. The eruption affected most of North Europe as sulphur dioxide mixed with rainfall to poison crops and choke lungs (in Britain, an estimated 20,000 died in the summer of 1783 from the toxic atmosphere).


Driving across the vast tundra of North Iceland


Brittle, jagged lava rockpile

The lava fields of Eldhraun are possibly the most desolate landscape I have yet to experience. Jagged and brittle piles of volcanic rock dot the plains as far as the eye can see, the monotony occasionally broken by smoky plumes where geothermal springs have broken through. It is not a terrain one can easily traverse on foot or even on horseback.


232 years after the catastrophic 8-month-long eruption of Lakagigar starting on 8 June 1783

Occasionally a few barren hills come into view, the taller ones still capped with ice even in the late spring. They are mostly moraine deposited by long forgotten glaciers - an accumulation of crumbly, gravelly scree virtually impossible to climb. Indeed, a landscape unfriendly to creatures as fragile as humans – but certainly not so to elemental beings and extradimensional denizens of Tolkienish folklore like trolls, ogres, elves, fairies, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and undines.

Dimmuborgir (Dark Castles) where a family of trolls became petrified when they stayed out till dawn

100-degree Celsius hotsprings atop a hillock
The only way the Icelanders could endure the extreme cold was to pipe geothermal water through their homes. Energy is also generated from the steaming hotsprings and countless waterfalls. Clean power and heating at its best, virtually free and unlimited.  Iceland is undoubtedly the least polluted nation in the world. Every home looks humble and plain on the outside – but the interiors are often cozily furnished with furs and rugs and well-designed furniture.

Temperature differences between outdoors and indoors in Iceland are extreme. From below zero, you step into rooms warm enough to undress in.

Farmer's bedroom warmed by body heat 
With limited resources in a punishing climate and terrain, the Icelanders’ ancestors required tremendous ingenuity and advanced design skills to survive. Early farmers came up with the idea of warming their stone and wood cottages with body heat – from their livestock which they kept one floor below as well as by squeezing themselves  into tiny bedrooms with a minimum of two bodies per bed. They often built their dwellings snug against a hillside and allowed grass to grow atop their roofs in the summer to form a natural thatch.


Folk museum curator Brooks Walker with
handwoven horsehair ropes
In winter when ice formed over lakes and made travel difficult, they fashioned simple skates from the bones of horses, held in place with ropes woven from horse hair. Some became experts in tool-making, improvising with metal scraps and driftwood, because importing cost a lot more and took months to deliver by ship.

Every part of the whale was recycled, especially the vertebrae, which were converted into large food containers. Smaller bones from whales and other animals were used as hammers, pounders, grinders, or turned into ornaments. Smaller bones from sheep and pigs were given to children as toys.

At the Folk Museum outside the village of Skỏgar we found a special display of finely crafted tools hand-made by a farmer turned smithy named Sigurjỏn Magnủsson (1889-1969) – a shining example of Icelandic ingenuity, skill and resourcefulness.


Food container made of whale vertebrum

Also on display was an exquisitely tailored black gown believed to have been sewn by elves and presented to a human female who helped midwife a difficult birth in the fairy realm.

Rolling With The Punches

Geothermal pool bubbling with smelly sulphurous mud (where the Devil once pissed, according to folklore)
Frequent earth tremors have forced Icelanders to become the world’s foremost authorities on earthquake-proofing their homes. All modern structures are now bolted to steel frames with built-in shock absorbers designed to withstand seismic activity up to 8 on the Richter scale.


The famous Strokkur geyser erupts every 5-7 minutes

We arrived in Iceland five days after the devastating earthquakes that crippled Nepal and within 24 hours of setting foot in Reykjavik I got wind of some volcanic activity in the southwest. Our guide expressed a degree of anxiety but I felt certain nothing terrible would happen. When the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010, the massive fallout of ash disrupted air travel in Northern Europe for weeks. More recently, Bárðarbunga erupted on 17 August 2014 and only quietened down on 27 February 2015. This time there was no problem with volcanic ash, but the massive lava flows released sulphur dioxide fumes which made breathing hazardous in many areas.


Glorious vistas every direction one turns, with angels cavorting in blue skies

Throughout our brief sojourn in Iceland, the skies were mostly a brilliant blue, especially as we headed farther north. Cirrus clouds cavorted in the high winds, forming angels and dragons and mythical creatures: to me, it was a clear sign that Iceland was pleased to reveal her otherworldly beauty and her abiding mysteries to appreciative souls. Within a single week we passed through so many unique, gobsmackingly spectacular landscapes found nowhere else on earth, and saw the most awe-inspiring waterfalls and rivers – but none warm enough to play in comfortably.

Skinnydipping, anyone? Brrrrrr!
“Three minutes,” Ragna solemnly informed us, “that’s how long you can stay alive if you fall into these icy waters, so please don’t try it!”

On the 1st of May, a nation-wide strike began with workers demanding a more reasonable share of the economic pie. The elite had recently given themselves a 30% pay hike and were offering less than 3% to the rest.

Magnús Tómasson's "Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat" (basalt on bronze, 1994)

500 copies of the first Icelandic Bible were printed in 1584
Iceland was settled by migrants utterly fed up with the notion of monarchy. For centuries the island had been virtually a colony of Norway and all its citizens were subjects of the Norwegian king. The island was presented to Sweden as a gift and later taken over by the Danes. In the year 1000 CE the Icelandic parliament passed a resolution to officially embrace Christianity. This averted a civil war between recent converts and diehard pagans. One of the last Viking chiefs ritually consigned his pagan deities to the bottom of a majestic but perennially frost-covered waterfall in North Iceland named Goðafoss where they presumably await their resurrection at Ragnarök (or the Final Reckoning). Nevertheless, every summer neo-pagans convene by the thousands in the Viking Village, located in a picturesque suburb of Reykjavik, to celebrate the Nordic pantheon of their ancestors.


The Norse Gods sleep at the bottom of Goðafoss, a perenially frost-covered waterfall

Jónas Hallgrímsson, Icelandic intellectual
& contributor to the
Fjölnir, a journal that
inspired the Independence movement
In 1874, an independence movement fomented by Danish-educated poets and intellectuals led to Iceland being granted home rule – but full independence was attained only in 1944 after Denmark fell under German occupation. Today Icelanders are known to be fiercely anarchistic and egalitarian in outlook. Their contempt for bureaucratic authority and corporate arrogance can be seen in public artworks like the hilarious basalt and bronze statue by Magnús Tómasson in honor of the blockheads in power installed outside the Parliament (it was subsequently relocated to a spot less obvious).

The building where Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 to discuss nuclear disarmament and an end to the Cold War is now a tourist attraction. This event put Reykjavik on the world map as thousands of reporters gathered there to document the historic dẻtente between the Capitalist and Communist blocs.


Jón Gunnar Árnason's "Sun Voyager" (aluminum sculpture, 1990)

Icelandic twins in Húsavík
Ragna with her Glacier Queen Trophy
Even though Iceland has never had a standing army, it has aligned itself with NATO and during the Cold War, the Americans established a military base and even sent their astronauts to Iceland for training prior to the Apollo moonshot. Apparently, the African Americans among the military encampment were a novel sight to many Icelanders who had never seen Blacks before. I’m sure there are more than a few traces of African DNA in Iceland, left behind by the American military occupation. Now there will also be some Asian DNA too: we were surprised to find a Penang-born Chinese waitress at the Grand Hotel Reykjavik who said she met her Icelandic husband while holidaying in Phuket eight years ago. The hotel staff included an Indonesian girl and a couple of Filipinas.

Since the banking collapse of 2008 - which led to a change of government and the jailing of a few bankers - Iceland has managed to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, turning to tourism as a new source of revenue. The climate may be harsh and inhospitable, but the warmth and friendliness of every Icelander I encountered more than made up for it.


Captain Palli steady at the wheel while Ragna regales us with troll tales

I dedicate this account to Ragna and Palli, our wonderful guide and driver, who went beyond the call of duty to make us feel welcome and loved. Thanks also go to Karen Sin of the Universal Travel Corporation in Singapore who came along to ensure that everything went smoothly; and, of course, to my adorable travel companion, Adeline “Kimchi” Kang who turned whimsical fantasy into a memorable reality for me.


First posted 17 May 2015. Text & photos © Antares 2015



2 comments:

masterymistery said...

Informative and interesting, as usual! :)

Antares said...

Thanks, mate :) xoxoxoxox